My first morning on the Aegean Odyssey I woke up to find Capri outside my window. The great cliff rising from the sea reminded me of the cover of Shirley Hazzard’s memoir, Greene on Capri.
The fact that the island made me think of Graham Greene meant that I was on the right ship. Months earlier the cruise company Voyages to Antiquity had mailed to me, along with the standard packet of information on dining rooms and dress codes, a recommended reading list. I had taken seven Caribbean cruises and never once received a reading list. This one included, among other titles, Pictures from Italy by Charles Dickens (the cruise was starting in Rome and visiting Sicily and Dalmatia before ending in Venice), The Fires of Vesuvius by Mary Beard, Sicilian Carousel by Lawrence Durrell, and The Leopard, Guiseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa’s classic novel of the coming unification of Italy as viewed by a world-weary aristocrat in Palermo.
Shortly after I boarded, I visited the ship’s library. The escapist fiction was shunted off to the side while sections on classical literature, history (shelves labeled Ancient Egypt, Byzantium, Roman Empire, Maritime), and travel took center stage. The last shelf held Nicolas Bouvier, Patrick Leigh Fermor, Norman Lewis, Jan Morris,
Martha Gellhorn. Goethe’s Italian Journey was present, in English translation, and replacing Peter Mayle’s A Year in Provence was Peter Mayne’s A Year in Marrakesh (a substitution which seemed to say everything you needed to know about the ship). Also here, in the same Eland series as Bouvier and Leigh Fermor, was David Gilmour’s The Last Leopard: A Life of Giuseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa.
In the past I’d always felt a little out of place on cruise ships. Gazing at this shelf I felt more than at home; I felt as if I were in my home. Strewn about the table were British broadsheets and recent issues of the Spectator and the Oldie.
At that first night’s dinner I sat next to Mary Beard. (It is one thing to recommend books; it is another thing altogether to put their authors on board.) She told me that her son and his friends had spent the summer driving around Eastern Europe in an old Royal Mail van.
“In France,” she observed, “everyone fancies himself a philosopher. You go in bookstores and you see books on philosophy. In England, everyone fancies himself a traveler.” I tried to remember who it was who had called England a nation of shopkeepers. Mary asked Simon, who was seated on my left. “Napoleon,” he said, before returning to his conversation.
After dinner, Mary gave a talk on Pompeii in the Ambassador Lounge. She said that what makes the place extraordinary is the fact that it was so ordinary—a typical Roman town of little consequence that now, of course, coughs up secrets about everyday life. She also said that the erotic paintings on the walls of the brothel did not serve as illustrative menus—“a la McDonald’s”—even though guides inevitably say that they did. Then, exactly one hour after she started, she told her audience, “You must be absolutely knackered,” and brought the first onboard lecture to a close.
The next day in Pompeii our Italian guide led us to the brothel and told us the paintings were used as menus. On the bus ride back, we were given a postcard view of the Aegean Odyssey sitting alone off the coast of Sorrento. In Civitavecchia it had looked a little humdrum, dwarfed by the behemoths of modern-day cruising. Here it gleamed with a lovely, old-fashioned compactness. It reminded me of the liners—the Mikhail Lermontov, the Stefan Batory—I took across the Atlantic in the 1970s and ’80s. (Oh for the days when ships were named after poets and kings!)
What made the Aegean Odyssey different, other than its name, was its passenger list. On those affordable Communist-era vessels, you found an eclectic collection of travelers: students, diplomats, Peace Corps volunteers, backpackers, immigrants—people starting new chapters in their lives. The Aegean Odyssey, by contrast, was heavily populated with retirees, all speaking English (British, American, Canadian, Australian) and tireless in their quest for knowledge. Walking the decks you saw the inevitable Stieg Larsson on a lap, but you also found The Ancient Mediterranean. These were people who had taken the reading list seriously.
As well they should have. We were offered no drinking games or talent contests. Instead of midnight buffets we had evening lectures. The cruise director was more like a no-nonsense (and middle-aged) governess than a pumped-up party girl. The daily program, titled a “Journal,” came with a quotation du jour. (“What we anticipate seldom occurs; what we least expected generally happens”—Benjamin Disraeli.) Onboard entertainment consisted of a pianist in the lounge and a Romanian trio that played—according to one passenger, an English teacher from Ontario—“all the music you’ve ever heard in cartoons.” It was a cruise for people who didn’t particularly like cruising.
Agropoli was our next port. As in Sorrento, we took a tender into town. Our guide, a middle-aged man dressed in white pants, white shirt, and Panama hat, met us on the dock and followed us onto a bus. “That’s my boat,” he deadpanned over the microphone as we climbed a cliff above an anchored yacht. “My wife is there waiting for me.”
We walked on dusty paths through the ancient city of Paestum. Cyril Connolly, in his essay “Revisiting Greece,” wrote that the Acropolis in summer created in him a desire for lemon and orange juice “poured again and again over cubes of ice.” The Temple of Poseidon had me coveting a lemon granita. Leading us into the museum, our guide announced in English, “I need tickets for my family.”
The following morning at breakfast I joined a retired French teacher from Boston who was having a wonderful time. “I love being taken care of,” she said before spreading a bit more jam on her toast. The morning lecture was given by Sir Tom Richardson, a former British ambassador to Italy now lending legitimacy to the Ambassador Lounge. He said that Sicily, because it was “a crossroads of commerce,” became what today we call “multi-culti.” As evidence of this he read a passage from The Leopard:
This violence of landscape, this cruelty of climate, this continual tension in everything, and these monuments, even, of the past, magnificent yet incomprehensible because not built by us and yet standing around like lovely mute ghosts; all those rulers who landed by main force from every direction, who were at once obeyed, soon detested, and always misunderstood, their only expressions works of art we couldn’t understand and taxes which we understood only too well and which they spent elsewhere: All these things have formed our character, which is thus conditioned by events outside our control as well as by a terrifying insularity of mind.
Later I ran into Susan, an American now living in England. “It’s such an FO [Foreign Office] sensibility,” she said of the talk. “Taking the muck out of things but with great erudition. They were so knowledgeable back then. They had time to read.”
Surely more than we did, what with all the excursions, lectures, meals, and socializing. But one morning I spent an hour in the library reading the life of Lampedusa and then the High Life column (it seemed appropriate) in the back of the Spectator. In Cefalu we visited the great Norman cathedral—its modern stained-glass windows getting mixed reviews—and then repaired to the café in the square in front. At a nearby table three young women in white summer dresses sat reading books. I asked them where they were from.
“Sweden,” said one of the two blondes.
I told her what an unusual sight it was for me to see a trio of twentysomethings not talking or texting but lost in books.
“In Sweden, too,” she said. I almost invited them back to the ship.
Before dinner I watched Luchino Visconti’s version of The Leopard—with Burt Lancaster, Claudia Cardinale, and Alain Delon—on the television in my cabin. We sailed into Palermo during the meal. This was where I’d eventually jump ship (I had been to Venice and Dalmatia and never to Sicily) but I stayed for the two days that it sat in port. At Palazzo Gangi we were shown the room in which Visconti had filmed the famous ballroom scene. Afterwards, standing on the palace’s second-floor terrace, I spoke with a speech pathologist from London.
“I don’t like all the emphasis they give to the movie,” she complained, speaking like a true bibliophile.
My last night on board a small group of us stood on the observation deck watching the flicker of distant fireworks. They were in celebration of Ferragosto, which coincides with the Feast of the Assumption. “It has to do with the Virgin,” the Italian-Australian crew member had told us. “What a surprise.”
Palermo stretched out below us, beckoning—like all cities seen from the deck of a ship—and enigmatic. But I would have a week to delve into its mysteries. Working to my advantage was the fact that I had not only seen the movie, I had read the book. It had come highly recommended.
Thomas Swick is the author, most recently, of A Way to See the World: From Texas to Transylvania with a Maverick Traveler.