History, opera, Mediterranean sunshine… Sue Bryant soaks it all up as she cruises around Sicily on the Hebridean Sky, one of Noble Caledonia’s intimate ships.
A small-ship cruise around Sicily, a chance of late summer sunshine and three operatic performances in one week. As a fan of all of the above, I couldn’t have asked for more.
The voyage in question was with Noble Caledonia, which has a long-standing association with the London Festival Opera (LFO).
LFO singers have performed on river cruises, land tours and on several ocean-going ships and the company has a loyal following of fans who book for the music first and the itinerary second. The idea this time was that we would explore Sicily and Sardinia by day and, at night, attend recitals in beautiful palaces ashore given by four singers and a pianist, led by tenor Philip Blake-Jones, founder of the LFO. All the performers had impressive singing pedigrees, having performed in top venues worldwide and with leading opera companies. I knew this would be good.
Hebridean Sky was waiting for us in Valletta, Malta, tiny against the towering ramparts of the city and dwarfed by a vast MSC ship. “That’s us,” joked Chantal, one of our tour leaders, pointing at the larger vessel as we approached the harbour. Everybody laughed nervously.
Noble Caledonia’s passengers are adventurous, small-ship types and the sense of relief when our smart little ship came into view from the bus was palpable.
October in the Med is still warm enough to eat on deck and the wine flowed that night as friendships were struck up and Hebridean Sky cast her lines and set a course for Sicily. Our group was mostly Brits, most the far side of 60 and without exception, well-travelled and cultured.
There were a few Australians among us on this trip, but when the ship is chartered by APT, which it is for several weeks of the year, the passenger contingent is almost entirely Australians and New Zealanders, with tweaks made such as more New World wines on the list and the inevitable Vegemite on the breakfast buffet.
These culture-focused cruises are not for slackers. Our schedule was packed, with the included tours departing most mornings at 8.15am, but it brought rich rewards.
The Villa Romana del Casale, a fourth century hunting lodge, displays the most dazzling Roman mosaics I’ve ever seen, room after room in intricate detail of 2,000-year-old hunting scenes, including tigers and elephants, and the famous depiction of Roman girls in bikinis playing ball.
In Syracuse, we strolled around the vast Neapolis Archaeological Park, while in Taormina, we clambered over the stone benches of the mighty Greco-Roman amphitheatre, Mount Etna smouldering in the distance.
The first operatic performance was a recital in the Palazzo Beneventano del Bosco in Syracuse, a ravishingly beautiful private home tucked into the cobbled back streets of the old city.
Due to a last minute hitch – the grand piano that had been hired was too heavy to hoist up the stone steps into the appointed salon – the concert ended up taking place in the courtyard.
A perfect night under a starry sky, but as the singers launched into a glorious aria, a busker started up outside the gate, belting out That’s Amore on his accordion. The rather grumpy baron, our host, rolled his eyes in a leave-this-to-me gesture and stepped outside. The din stopped, mid-chord, which made me wonder what fate had befallen the accordionist.
Some days I broke free from the sightseeing. On a lovely, sunny day in Palermo, pink-and-white stalls were being set up along Via Maqueda for an ice-cream festival, selling organic lime granita and gelato including liquorice and pistachio, studded with nuts. I spent a happy afternoon wandering round this gorgeous and most underrated city, all wide boulevards and grand palazzi with crumbling, bombed-out facades sandwiched between them, still waiting to be repaired, seven decades after the war.
In keeping with the operatic theme, I joined a behind-the-scenes tour of the Teatro Massimo, Palermo’s incongruously large opera house, the third-biggest in Europe after those in Vienna and Paris. And then I gave in to the gelato; great dollops of pistachio and tiramisu.
Palermo’s concert was an evening of Bellini, Rossini and Verdi, with the singers donning full 19th century costume, Charlotte, the mezzo and Abigail, the soprano, in swaying crinolines and swagged silks. The Palazzo Valguarnera-Gangi, where the event took place, is an absolute stunner of a baroque pile, with one gilded, mirrored, chandeliered salon leading to the next, candles flickering on a romantic terrace with prosecco chilling in buckets for after the performance. The whole evening was magical; the setting, the glorious singing, the rather glamorous after-party, where we sampled arancini (a Sicilian speciality, fried rice balls with cheese inside), sipped prosecco and chatted to the principessa whose family owned the palace.
Our own home, Hebridean Sky, was less ornate but extremely comfortable. The ship has just had a big facelift and is all polished wood panelling and shining brass. There’s a sunny library, a bit of sunbathing space on deck, a lounge for lectures and a bar with a piano. You sit where you want for meals, try to remember everybody’s name, enjoy a chat about the day’s events and then have a repeat conversation at the next meal.
Afternoons at sea weren’t for lying around. Philip Blake-Jones gave a fascinating talk on the life of Giuseppe Verdi and most entertainingly, as the ship sailed from Messina, laid on a music quiz. Not exactly your everyday cruise ship trivia; instead, there were questions such as “How many women did Don Giovanni seduce in Spain?” and “What is the note of the bottom string on a cello?”.
We were treated to one final performance, on board this time, featuring lighter numbers and bits of operetta, not least a spot of Gilbert and Sullivan. Like the other concerts, it received a standing ovation.
I can see why people book for the opera; it’s a real treat, having such intimate performances and mixing with the performers all week, while the magnificent settings were the perfect backdrop for each event. Other locations for opera cruises have included the Danube and Italy’s gorgeous Amalfi Coast. I’ll certainly be back.
The Verdict Highs: The in-depth tours. Beautiful, spacious and luxurious cabins, good food, free-flowing wine with meals. Excellent library and friendly crew. Lows: No pool or hot tub. Best suited to: Over-50s, culture-lovers, couples and singles.
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