The tale of six cities
Mark Evans goes city sightseeing the lazy way -with a relaxing cruise around the Western Med
Cruising's gotten that little bit pricier this season - but its still a bargain way to pack a lot of sights into one itinerary at one price. Shopping around, I picked up a deal to cruise the Western Mediterranean onboard MSC's Splendida, big enough to keep our gang occupied for a week, but small enough to be intimate and friendly.
It's classy, but fun, so if you want fine dining and shows, you've got it, but if you want Italian dancealongs and table quizes, you're catered for too.
Day 1: Barcelona
A big starting-off point for the major cruise lines, Barca's on everyone's favourite city list.
Except mine. If hookers and fast food joints are your thing, look no further than the Ramblas - the city's version of O'Connell Street in more ways than I care for.
Play it safe and enjoy a drink or dinner just off it on gorgeous Placa Reial - a stunning square where the mood is more chilled.
While the Ramblas is grotty by night, the morning brought a beautiful view of it under the sunlight - the stunning street I remember from travels past.
Before boarding, take a trip down to the marina, filled with shops and restaurants, and only a short taxi ride from the port.
The first night onboard is always a buzz of excitement. Drinks bills add up, so check out the upfront drinks packages (see factfile) to cut down on costs.
Staterooms are classy, and opt for a balcony if possible - and it was a thrill to watch a family of dolphins playfully jumping around in the deep blue med as we sailed by.
Dinner is typically Italian - plenty of courses and our frienfly waiter from indonesia had a chilled bottle of white wine waiting for us each evening as we sat down.
Day 2: Valencia
A stunning city, very much a match for Madrid or Barcelona. I've been before, so took the chance to stay onboard.
Its a good idea - with the tour groups gone, you have the run of the ship to yourself. At the port side of the stern is a kids-free serenity area, with two hot tubs, a small pool and bar. It's a chilled out zone, away from the bustle of the main family pool area, so we pretty much made it our port of call each day.
Day 3: At sea
It's the big question I'm always asked - will I be bored on a ship? The strange thing is that people quicly grow to love days at sea. No early wake ups for yet another Roman ruin, no grabbing the passports or money for onshore. No, sea days are about total relaxation. You could try a spot of poker in the huge casino, learn to dance in the lounge club, try our a formula 1 car in the simulator, or just do as most do - grab that cocktail from the waiter and lie back in your sunbed. There's always a spot of lunch in the excellent bora bora buffet restaurant (the pizzas and pastas are excellent) before you strart to dream about dinner.
For a small charge you can try Santa Fe, the Tex Mex restaurant. Starve yourself beforehand - portions are enormous and you might be regretting that nachos and cheese mountain by the time your fajitas arrive.
The Aft Lounge bar is the place for fun later. Admire the people who've taken dancing lessons as they try out their moves, or have a go yourself. It's unfussy fun and a great meeting point after dinner before hitting the nightclub, which goes on into very late into the night.
Day 4: Tunisia
Another day, another city - and another civilization. You'll know you're in Tunisia the minute you arrive. A band straight out of Lawrence of Arabia, complete with a camel, are giving it socks on the quayside.
Many Americans are staying put - nuts. The area's home to the mini Paris that is Tunis, and is right beside the incredible ancient ruins of Carthage and the celebrated resort of Sidi Bou Said.
There's an electric train from the port at La Goulette to Tunis, but the offer of a €5 taxi fare between three lads seemed too good to miss. We were on a mission - to get a Turkish massage, and Tunisia seemed close enough. Driving past the ruins of Carthage, and missing the turn for the city, I had enough French to tell the driver we were going the wrong way. But he was on a mission too - to bring us to the country's prettiest village. A fiver later and were in Sidi Bou Said, with its fabulous views over the glistening Med.
It's touristy but not in your face - looking like Santorini without the hard sell. A coffee and dates breakfast (and a trip to a loo that was straight out of Ronan times) set us up for Tunis. With the protests in recent years, it's bereft of tourists but it's friendly and another bad loo later brought us to the hammam, with the help of the owner's 'cousin'.
No hammam but a pricey hairdressers, and one of the guys went for a cut. We headed for another espresso - in a beautiful old coffee house as the call to prayers played out around the streets.
Another madcap taxi ride brought us to the glitzy new port terminal and shopping mall, where Americans were having their pictures taken in front of an ornate toilet. Maybe it's the country's pride.
We should have gone there, but it's our own fault for looking for (authentic, ie grotty) places way off the tourist trail.
A bit of haggling later and we've got a €5 stuffed camel and are wearing Arabic headgear. The band were still there, banging out Deutschland uber Alles as we boarded. I hope the tourists keep coming back - it's a bit nutty but the people are great. My favourite port of the trip.
The next day and another culture - the Roman empire.
If you want a stress-free experience, take the organised excursion to the Eternal City from the port.
If you want to DIY it, grab the train into town, or get a group together, as we did, and pay no more than €60 a head for a return trip and your own driver for the day.
Check out www.herald.ie for my full report on Rome. If you don't fancy the trek, the port of Civitavecchia is a pleasant seaside resort in its own right. Another day, another city - this time Genoa. Although once the home of a great maritime power, Genoa doesn't get the hordes like its Medieval rival, Venice.
I love an underdog too, and while the city's not big on must-see sights (the churches, though, are fabulous), I love the place.
It's full of alleyways and winding streets, and the Medieval heart's the place to grab a cappuccino and join the Italians in people watching. Last port of call before Barcelona is Marseille, the buzzing second city of France. Explore the Vieux Port, enjoy the cuisine, or do as we did - admired the view from the hot tub, cocktail in hand. Who said city breaks need to be stressful?
This season's routing itinerary has altered slightly, but covers the same beautiul stretch of the Mediterranean.
Sailing from Barcelona, it takes in Marseille, Genoa, Naples, Messina, La Goulette (for Tunis) and back.
It's €745 for an inside room; ocean view is €835; and balcony is €875, including return flights with Ryanair and checked bag.
Book through King Travel in Malahide; www.kingtravel.ie or phone 01-8453600.
King Travel also has MSC deals to the Dubai area, including flights, from €929pp.
If you want to go earlier, www.msccruises.ie have a cruise only for €549 on April 6 or 13; and €1,099 with flight on April 25.
DRINKS: The Allegrissimo Adult package is €23 per day. It offers unlimited wine by the glass (choice of two whites, one rosè, two reds, two sparkling wines, draught beer, soft drinks, mineral water and a wide selection of drinks and cocktails from the bar, as well as take-away ice-cream.
There's a child deal for €12 per day, with unlimited soft drinks and milkshakes, etc, while the premium adult option is €42 a day and includes unlimited wine, beer and bottled beer, minibar drinks and pastries and chocolates from the gelateria menu.