Tour begins: 6:00 PM. A transfer is included from Malta's Luqa International Airport to the Marriott Malta Hotel & Spa in St. Julian, or The Phoenicia Malta in Floriana, both in the Valletta area. Join us this evening for a welcome reception and dinner at your hotel.
In 1530 Charles V of Spain leased the island of Malta to the Knights of the Order of St. John. In lieu of rent every year, the knights gave the king a Maltese falcon – not a jewel-encrusted objet d'art like the one Humphrey Bogart was after, but an actual hunting bird that symbolized the knights' role as Christendom's loyal soldiers and birds of prey. The jewel they delivered in time was Malta itself, the prize of the Mediterranean, a treasure island of opulent palaces, monasteries, cathedrals, art, and culture, as well as its own style of Baroque architecture. Valletta, the capital city, is entirely a UNESCO World Heritage site for having one of the highest concentrations of historic areas in the world. Sightseeing in Valletta, the Fortress-City, includes a private visit to St. John's Co-Cathedral, a High-Baroque masterpiece saturated with frescoes, gold ornament, and one of the world's most treasured Caravaggio paintings; and Casa Rocca Piccola, the elegant private home of a local noble family (who still reside there), where you'll have the unique opportunity to meet a Knight of Malta. You'll also view a film, "The Malta Experience," that distills 7,000 years of Maltese history and tells how the Knights of St. John ushered in the island's second golden age. Drive to the ancient temple complex of Hagar Qim in Mnajdra, set on a windswept hill overlooking the sea. Tour the sprawling complex of chambers, altars, cisterns, carvings and statuary, and learn the best theories of who made them and why. Like Stonehenge, the temples are "megalithic", made of enormous stone blocks stacked on one another, so high that legends say they were built by giants; and considering when it was built (as early as 3600 BC), the builders had skills beyond their years. Return to Valletta or your hotel for an evening on your own.
Travel to the walled town of Mdina, another UNESCO World Heritage site, and a living gallery of meticulously preserved palaces, chapels, monuments, and cathedrals, intimate winding streets and alleys, and panoramic views from its ramparts – one of the highlights is a private visit to St. John's Co-Cathedral. Stop at a restaurant in Mosta enjoy a lunch of Maltese cuisine and folkloric entertainment, then return to Valletta and embark. Settle in and dine at leisure this evening as you sail for Siracusa, Sicily.
Siracusa was once a city-state, and the center of everything in the Ancient World: learning, trade, art, geopolitics, architecture, and culture. At one time or another it was the premier city of Greece, the Moorish capital of Sicily, the capital of the Byzantine Empire, and a hub of Christianity and Judaism. The entire city is a UNESCO World Heritage site, so there is much to see packed into this corner of the island. Visit the Neapolis Archaeological Park with a local guide and peruse the largest Greek amphitheatre ever built, carved into the side of a hill in the 3rd century; proceed to the Latimo del Paradiso (Paradise Quarry) to see the catacombs and the Ear of Dionysius, a cave with an opening shaped like an elfin ear, 70 feet high; because of its amazing acoustics, the grotto may have been a theatre or a prison, depending on whether you believe legend or the rogue artist-rascal, Caravaggio; then take a guided walking tour through Ortygia, a romantic island in the heart of the city dense with palazzi, charming piazzas, ancient temples, Byzantine churches, sidewalk cafes, and seaside promenades, where your stops include the ruined Temple of Apollo, and the Duomo, a Baroque masterpiece built over the Temple of Athena. You'll also drive to the city of Noto, an enclave of antiquity as old as Siracusa; leveled by an earthquake in 1693, the town was entirely rebuilt in the 18th century, and is known today as the Capital of Baroque, a stately showcase of Sicilian Baroque architecture, operatic in its grandeur, adorned with carvings, columns, and statuary, and aglow in warm, honey-hued limestone; a guided walking tour will take you from the public gardens to the main attractions along the Corso Vittorio Emanuele, including the Church of St. Dominic, the Church of St. Charles, the Ducezio Palace, and the centerpiece Cathedral of San Nicolo at the top of a grand staircase in the main square. Enjoy free time to explore on your own then return to your ship for lunch, and spend the afternoon at leisure in Ortygia. Tonight, join the Captain's welcome reception and dinner as you sail for Catania.
Mount Etna & Taormina
Catania nestles near the foot of Mount Etna, the largest active volcano in Europe, so huge that it dwarfs every other mountain on Sicily. Locals affectionately call it "Mama Etna", a majestic, living presence in everyday life. Meanwhile, you have a choice of excursions. Take a scenic drive to Taormina, a medieval town beside the Ionian Sea; Goethe praised Taormina for its beauty in his travel book, Italian Journeys, and ever since it has drawn generations of artists, composers, and writers to its romance and ruins. Tour the Palazzao Corvaia, a fortified villa of Moorish, Gothic, and Norman design, and a centerpiece of the Old Town; in the 14th century the great hall was a meeting place for the Sicilian Parliament. Visit the town's most famous landmark, Teatro Antico, a Greco-Roman amphitheatre set on a clifftop with breathtaking views of Mt. Etna and the Bay of Naxos; built in the 3rd century BC, the theatre is still used for concerts and theatre productions. Enjoy free time in town, then head out to the Barone di Villagrande winery on the slopes of Mount Etna for a tour and tasting, and a family style lunch featuring local cuisine. Alternatively, you can drive through verdant countryside and scenic villages to the Sapienza Refuge, and ride by cable car and all-terrain vehicle up to the crater of the volcano; here, a mile above sea level, you'll find yourself in an incomparable panorama, suspended over the sea, where you can appreciate not just the crater but the historic lava flows that have molded the landscape below; your experienced mountaineer guides will show you the best volcanic attractions inside the visitors' zones. Or journey through history at Catania's Allied Landing Museum, and discover what life was like in Sicily during World War II; the complex of exhibits and galleries also detail the Allied offensive that drove the Axis powers out of Italy. Then take a walking tour of the city center that includes the fish market (for a taste of local culture), and the baroque cathedral dedicated to St. Agatha, profusely decorated with art and statuary, built upon Achilles' temple and baths, and enjoy free time on your own. Aboard ship this evening, an expert offers insights into earthquakes, eruptions, and the volcanic geology of the Mediterranean isles.
Palermo & Palazzo Museums
Steeped in Renaissance art and sumptuous Baroque architecture, Palermo is a glorious cultural melting pot with a North African flavor, full of hidden treasures. A walking tour of must-see landmarks takes you through Porta Nuova, a gate of the Old City, and along the Corso Vittorio Emanuele past the Cathedral; linger in the Piazza Pretoria, known as the Square of Shame for its fountain adorned with frolicsome naked figures; experience the eye-opening Santa Caterina Church, dripping with art and ornament, and the jaw-dropping Rococo ballroom of the Palazzo Gangi, made famous in a 1963 Visconti film, The Leopard, starring Alain Delon and Burt Lancaster; enjoy a drink with canapes under the painted ceiling and dazzling chandeliers. A tour of intimate private museums that includes the 17th-century Palazzo Butera in the old Arabic quarter, featuring Moorish interiors, walls of colored Tiffany glass, and an impressive modern art collection; roam the Palazzo Mazzarino with its arcaded inner courtyard, frescoed rooms, and hanging gardens, and enjoy a drink on the rooftop terrace. You'll also immerse yourself in the city's Botanical Gardens, built in 1789, with its baroque greenhouse, sculptures, lagoon, and exotic flora, one of the oldest places in Europe for botanical studies; visit the historic private villa designed by Beaumont Gardner, an architect whose prominent family goes way back in the city's history; his grandfather was the American consul in Palermo in 1825. Meet the owners of the villa and enjoy an aperitif in the luscious garden. Return to the ship for lunch and hear an expert lecture on Addiopizzo, an internet movement to end Mafia protection rackets in Sicily. Your next port of call is Cagliari.
Sardinia, from the Bronze Age to the present day
Arrive in Cagliari, Sardinia's capital city. Although the island enjoys a certain degree of autonomy from Italy, and its native language and costume are uniquely its own, Cagliari is thoroughly Italian in its laidback vibe and urban culture. Sightseeing choices include a locally-guided walking tour of the medieval Castello district, and a visit to the National Archaeological Museum, where impressive exhibits trace Sardinia's earliest civilizations from the Bronze Age to the Byzantine; view a recreation of a Phoenician village, and the Nora Stone, a stone tablet with the oldest sample of Phoenician writing found on the island. Winding alleyways lead you next to St. Mary's Romanesque cathedral, home of martyrs, relics, and the opulent mausoleum of King Martin the First of Sicily; get a taste of local life at the bustling San Benedetto food market, one of the largest of its kind in Europe, with 240 stalls of produce and artisan foods; you'll also visit Monte Urpino (Fox Mountain), an urban park and nature reserve, for a chance to see swans, peacocks, and even foxes, as well as panoramic views of the city. Alternatively, travel outside the city for a visit to a winery that produces award-winning native wines. Or venture further, to an open-air museum on the site of Nora, an ancient port established by Bronze-Age Nuragic people, later inhabited by Phoenicians and Romans; the ruins include a theatre, thermal baths, houses, a temple dedicated to the Phoenician goddess Tanit, and a sanctuary dedicated to the Greek god Asclepius. Whichever excursion you choose, everyone meets up in Cagliari later for a special Sardinian lunch at the Convent di San Giuseppe, a former medieval convent, now a family-run gathering place and local institution. This afternoon, sail for the island of Corsica.
Corsica & The City of Cliffs
Corsica is thought to be the mythical island of giants in Homer's Odyssey, where Laestrygonians hurled boulders down at Odysseus and his ship from the towering sea cliffs. The inhabitants today are much friendlier, and the island is strikingly beautiful, with rugged mountains that plunge to the sea, hidden coves, idyllic white beaches, and pastel towns that hug the coastline. Dock in Bonifacio – a medieval town that seems to perch precariously on a promontory thrust out above crashing surf and soaring white cliffs – where you have a choice of sightseeing excursions. Discover the Old Town, a warren of winding streets, colorful houses, monasteries, and Roman cisterns, with Eglise St-Marie-Majeure, a Romanesque jewel of a church with a tall belltower in the heart of it all. Long before Corsica became French it was Genoese, and the 13th-century fortress here was built to defend the Tuscan coast from Saracens and Barbary pirates; a tour of the citadel's medieval defenses, towers, and cliffside Garden of Ruins is breathtaking. Alternatively, you can approach Bonifacio from the shoreline and ride a mini-train up to the Old Town, ascending on a winding road with stunning views of the harbor, the cliffs, and the massive walls of the Citadel; you'll also see the St. Francois Convent; the Mariners' Cemetery, a walled village of flamboyant mausoleums; and the St. Dominic Church, a rare example of Corsican Gothic architecture, probably built by the Knights Templars. After a walking tour of the Old Town, ride back down to the marina and board a local boat for a cruise around the cliffs and sea caves, weather permitting. Following some free time on your own, attend a performance of polyphonic singers aboard ship. Dine at leisure as you sail for Elba in the Tyrrhenian Sea.
Elba, an Island Paradise
Legend says that the Tuscan archipelago was formed when the goddess Venus dropped her necklace into the sea, and Elba is the largest of the island jewels, set in turquoise waters, with white beaches, rocky cliffs and coves, green hills, pastel villages and lush vineyards. Elba was known throughout the ancient world for iron ore and excellent wine; Jason stopped here on his quest for the Golden Fleece; but lately it's remembered as the little island paradise where Napoleon was exiled in 1814. A tour of Portoferraio includes the seaside promenade, Villa Mulini, Napoleon's clifftop winter mansion, and a charming theatre built by the emperor as a gift to his sister; in the piazza, enjoy a wine tasting with views of the harbor. Or drive to the resort town of Marciana Marina and ride a lift to the top of Monte Cappane for the glorious 360-degree views. Or tour Villa San Martino, Napoleon's summer residence, and spend an idyllic afternoon in the dreamy fishing town of Porto Azzurro and visit La Chiusa Winery for a taste of some of the famous local wine. Most people who experience Elba never want to leave, but Napoleon only stayed a few months. He escaped at the first opportunity, returned to Paris, and took back his empire. Tonight, you sail instead for Nice.
Tour ends: Nice. Disembark in Nice; transfers are included from your hotel to Marseille International Airport or Nice Côte d'Azur Airport. Please allow three hours for check-in at the airport.