WORDS BY SUE BRYANT
I am craning my neck, gazing up through a forest of impossibly spindly pillars towards a kaleidoscope of stained glass. The scale and sheer drama of Gaudí’s La Sagrada Família is extraordinary.
But what’s really impressing me is the fact that I’ve wandered straight into Barcelona’s most visited attraction.
I tried in the heat of last summer but gave up when I saw the five-hour queue snaking round the site. You can book online if you’re organised, but I’m not. December, though, is a different story.
Winter has set in – and there’s barely anybody here.
From the top of the basilica’s skinny tower, the view stretches right across the city to the coast. In the far distance, our ship, Viking Star, is the sole vessel in what’s normally one of the Mediterranean’s busiest cruise ports.
Cruising the Mediterranean out of season is a relatively new opportunity and a timely one in the face of overtourism. Ports like Barcelona, Venice and Dubrovnik are becoming so swamped in summer that a backlash against tourism is swelling.
In response, cruise lines are extending their seasons to spread the load. ‘Summer’ for many now stretches to the end of November. Viking Cruises has taken this a step further and for a couple of years now has offered ‘quiet season’ itineraries that sail to popular Mediterranean ports, usually hugging the warmer southern shores, all winter long.
The week was a revelation. Cities I normally associate with sweatiness, crowds and selfie sticks felt serene, taking on an almost dreamy quality in the pale sunshine.
In Rome, a few tour groups were milling around the fountains of Piazza Navona but it was nothing like the heaving masses of summer.
The only action in the Circus Maximus was a few locals walking their dogs. It wasn’t warm enough for gelato – but I couldn’t resist a cappuccino with a couple of decadent cannoli, fried pastry tubes filled with sweet ricotta.
Back at the coast, the port of Civitavecchia northwest of Rome felt eerily desolate. In summer, as many as 10 cruise ships squeeze in here but again, it was just us. You could practically feel the tumbleweed blowing along the quayside.
Some ships are built for outdoor living. In contrast, Viking Star, the first in a series of six near-identical ships operated by the line, is the best possible vessel for cooler weather cruising.
Carrying just 930 passengers, the ship is small, by today’s standards, and streamlined, cutting efficiently through the occasional swells we encountered.
The Norwegian owners have endowed Viking Star and her sisters with hygge (cosiness, comfort and contentment), all soothing, light-filled lounges and squashy sofas with reindeer throws.
The main pool was positively balmy, thanks to a retractable glass roof, each lounger bedecked with a cashmere blanket as well as a swimming towel. The double- height Explorers’ Lounge spanning decks seven and eight is a tasteful combination of Scandi chic and marine artefacts.
Everywhere we went over the course of a week, I felt a sensation that the place had been reclaimed, if briefly, by the locals.
Viking offers an included tour in every port and while these were mostly straightforward sightseeing, we were happy to join them and wander off on our own afterwards.
My partner, David, and I roamed the empty alleys of cobbled Castello district in Cagliari and shopped for Sardinian honey and olive oil in a street market, where I could hear only Italian voices.
We wandered through the souk in Tunis, haggling amiably for jewellery and olive wood bowls, Christmas shopping in mind.
Valencia is gorgeous at any time, all the more so on a clear, crisp December day, the dazzling modern architecture of the City of Arts and Sciences complex stunning against a brilliant blue sky.
There was no jostling to gawp at the Holy Grail, housed in a tiny chapel in the cathedral, packed with pilgrims in summer.
We sat in a small café among locals on their lunch breaks for plates of paella, the local speciality, and hit the covered market for regional goodies: a hunk of Manchego cheese and big bag of saffron.
The weather wasn’t entirely kind, although high wind is a possibility in the Mediterranean at any time of year.
We passed a somewhat bumpy sea day with a gym session and a merengue class, both undone by scones and clotted cream at afternoon tea. I curled up in the Explorers’ Lounge with a book, gazing out at the steely sky, feeling warm and toasty as the wind whipped up frothy whitecaps.
Viking Star has many lovely touches that I’ve never seen on other cruise ships. There’s no charge to get into the spa’s thermal suite, for example, while some lines hit you up for US$40 per visit. We spent hours wallowing in a big thalassotherapy pool, getting steamy in the hammam (steam bath) and lobbing snowballs in an actual snow grotto. A few hardy souls even took a dip in the infinity pool on the aft deck, snapping selfies before scuttling back inside, swaddled in fluffy bathrobes.
Evenings on board had originality and style. Every night, there were ‘Munch Moments’ at cocktail hour, with images of artist Edvard Munch’s hauntingly beautiful paintings projected onto a giant screen in the atrium as a pianist played classical tunes. (I noted that ‘The Scream’, which may have killed the vibe somewhat, didn’t appear until later, when everybody was at dinner.)
There’s no casino and we didn’t tend to go to the shows in the theatre, although a highly entertaining ABBA party by the pool got everybody dancing.
I absolutely loved the sultry, old-fashioned nightclub, Torshavn, with red velvet curtains, moody lighting, a great band and a tiny, always packed dance floor. Every ship should have a club like this.
The Tor in Torshavn is Torstein Hagen, Viking’s billionaire owner, whose personal touch appears throughout the ship, not least in a little café, Mamsen’s, named after his late mother and offering deli-style sandwiches, hearty soups, herrings and the Hagen family’s take on waffles; Norwegians eat them with brown, caramel-flavoured brunost cheese, an acquired taste.
After one taste of that, I stayed with the jam and cream version.
There are several other restaurants, all including wine with dinner and none charging a supplement; I love the fact that there is no nickel and diming on this ship.
Our favourite was Manfredi’s, a lively Italian trattoria, where we put away sea bass and ratatouille, rack of lamb, wild mushroom risotto and lemon linguine.
The Restaurant, the main dining room, offers healthy, imaginative dishes; I particularly loved vegetable strudel and peanut- crusted chicken.
World Café, too, is a magnificent buffet, with a popular sushi bar in the evenings and a mouth-watering display of seafood. At lunchtime, we made salads in here to supplement the posh burgers and skinny fries from the nearby Pool Bar.
We may not have made the most of our balcony or sat at the al fresco Aquavit Terrace by the infinity pool, but to me, this cruise was a real joy; almost like stepping back 20 years and exploring a few favourite European cities as they were before tourism got so crazy.
If you’re happy to take a chance on the weather, I couldn’t recommend it more highly.