Reflections on the water

You won't find passengers on board the `MS Minerva' sun-worshipping, downing cocktails or tussling over the loungers. Jill Crawshaw gets friendly with the culture-cruise club
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The Independent Culture
The title of the lecture, "Roman Art, Tradition and Innovation" by the Reverend Dr Alan Griffin, Church of England clergyman and lecturer in classics at Exeter University, didn't seem much of a rival to the sunshine, swimming pool and hazy silhouette of the Apennines off the port bow but, as MS Minerva's passengers, we knew better. And so, among the nuggets of Roman civilisation, we learned that the forebear of our own common- or-garden gnomes may well have been the Roman God Priapus who, in full phallic glory, would grace the formal gardens of Roman suburban villas, warning wrongdoers that "trespassers will be penetrated" - a theory we later dissected minutely over canapes at the evening's gala dinner.

This was, of course, no ordinary cruise. With no bingo, no casino, no cabaret, instead a clutch of professors, dons and deans to entertain us, "cultural cruises" may best describe these 42-year-old British institutions. The ship's aficionados - half the passengers can claim 10 or more cruises, the record currently held by a teacher who has notched up 28 - merely refer to them as "Swan Hellenics".

Our own particular odyssey, Swan Hellenic No 463, entitled "Italian Reflections", spanned over 2,000 miles and 13 ports of call, from Genoa to Sicily, and Otranto to Venice, and 3,000 years of Italy's history from early Greek and Etruscan settlements, via its Roman, Byzantine and Renaissance heritage, to Mussolini and the problems of Italy, the single European currency and Padania.

Who's Who was well represented among the 300 or so passengers - a mix of Labour and Tory peers, headmistresses and Honourables, television producers and a Booker prize-winner, as well as a 60-strong group of Americans from Yale and the American National Trust. There was definitely not an Armani suit or dress among them - they would probably have considered him some obscure Milanese composer. But the common denominator was sufficient intellectual and physical stamina to tackle a couple of excursions a day ("three hours walking in busy streets" warn the excursion notes), plus several lectures or talks. Rest cures these cruises are not.

Whether a new, younger clientele will be able to match the enthusiasm of the veterans is questionable; to broaden the appeal and age range of its passengers, Swan Hellenic's new cruise programme will venture as far as the Middle and Far East this winter, the Baltic and northern waters next summer, recruit new faces such as John Cole, the ex-BBC commentator, Dr Anthony Clare of In the Psychiatrist's Chair, and author Malcolm Bradbury. Innovations on board include a beauty salon, sauna and gymnasiums, all incorporated into the custom designed "new ship" - the old and much-loved converted Irish cattle ferry, Orpheus, having been replaced this year by the 12,000 ton Minerva, a converted Soviet spy ship from Odessa that proved surplus to requirements after the end of the Cold War, and re-named appropriately enough after the goddess of wisdom.

She still has, according to Captain Jeremy Kingston, a number of heavy- duty military fittings and a strengthened hull, but to laymen like us, she looks sleek enough above the waterline with her navy and white livery, golden swan emblazoned on her single funnel, bright green astroturf carpeting on the top deck and, praise to the wisdom of the Gods, enough sun loungers near the pool to prevent the furtive "bagging" antics that practically lead to mutiny on some cruise ships.

True, a few passengers nostalgically pay lip-service to the familiarity of the Greek crew and eccentric plumbing of the Orpheus while, I suspect, succumbing gratefully to creature comforts such as televisions, hairdryers and bathrobes in the cabins, a cinema and a splendid library which attracts rather more customers than the gym, and English country-house-style furnishings, which means lots of chintz.

The Rod Hart Quartet offered 1-2-3 music each evening with some concessions to rock, while other passengers played bridge or went to watch a film.

The two bars, one named after Sir Mortimer Wheeler, Swan's former chairman, were very well patronised, run by rather churlish Ukranians (there are 16 different nationalities among the 160-strong crew), the waiters in the dining room being somewhat jollier Filipinos. I tested the handout in my cabin, How to say it in Filipino and Russian with Kumusta and Kak Dela, which supposedly mean "How are you". My linguistic explorations prompted the reply "Cheers!" from the barman and "You are welcome" from the waiter. Well at least I tried.

Communication with the lecturers on board went rather more smoothly. They accompanied visits ashore and mixed with the hoi polloi at meal times - there is mercifully no fixed seating on the Minerva, which means you never need to get stuck more than once with the ship's bore, even if you do have to explain your cv every night.

Each expert gave two or three 40-minute talks; on the way to Genoa, Oxford's Public Orator, Professor Jasper Griffin reminded us of Dr Johnson's claim that "a man who has not been to Italy is always conscious of an inferiority." (Johnson had not been there himself.) Approaching Tarquinia, Professor Colin Renfrew, aka Lord Renfrew of Kamisthorn, gave life and substance to the shadowy, neglected Etruscans, portraying them with the help of DH Lawrence as a joyous, fun-loving people who immediately seemed to have more in common with 20th century Italians than their austere Roman conquerors. Elisabeth Gordon took us through the art of mosaics en route for the wonders in Sicily and Ravenna.

There's light relief in a series of classical concerts on board and, ashore, one of the late Sir William Walton's violin and piano sonatas to be heard in his villa on the island of Ischia.

With so many ports of call and a huge programme of excursions, decisions could involve an agonising choice between Ravenna or Urbino, Herculaneum or the Capodimonte Palace. A few trips disappoint.

Not all the local guides came up to scratch, either - those at Pompei rushed us from temples to brothels in fragmented English; we soon learned that the most familiar words in the Italian language are chiuso and in restauro, seemingly in perpetuity.

But there were numerous highlights; even in drizzly weather, Lucca was a treat, its mellow walls encircling devious medieval streets and hidden piazzas, 50 or so churches (even more banks), and a unique market place in the old Roman amphitheatre. Another trip took us through the ravaged beauty of Sicily's barren countryside to the Piazza Armering, the Imperial villa believed to have belonged to Diocletian's co-Emperor, Maximianus Heraclius, where 3,000 square metres of vivid 4th-century Roman African mosaics portray vigorous chariot races and boar hunts, and where the scantily clad dancing girls in the Hall of Ten Maidens scotch the myth once and for all that the bikini is a 20th-century invention.

The little fortified port of Otranto is so ignored by other cruise ships that the whole town seemed to be waiting on the quayside to greet the ship's tenders. The ossuary in its cathedral contains the bones of some 800 martyrs executed by the Turks in 1480.

The cruise wasn't all culture though; in Capri I took the funicular up to the Piazza Umberto, and paid for a coffee as rent to watch the weekending Italians in what they call "the little theatre of the world". In Taormina, we ducked the Greco-Roman theatre in favour of shopping for postcards, (which reached their destinations four weeks later), silk scarves and marzipan fruit in its exquisite little high street.

Only La Serenissima herself could be a fitting finale to our odyssey. Schooners, tugs, even ferries made way for us as we nudged through the channels of buoys in the lagoon towards what Jan Morris calls "the most glittering of all the world's belvederes, the most suggestive of great occasions and lofty circumstance", the Piazzetta di San Marco and, at last, into our privileged berth alongside the Canale de la Guidecca, our decks towering over campaniles and domes, pantiled roofs and vaporetto stations.

It was the day of the annual Regatta Storica, and thoughts about attending exhibitions at the Palazzo Grassi, and other island excursions in the lagoon about which we'd been primed, were abandoned in favour of peeping between the crowds and good-natured policemen on the Accademia Bridge to watch the gondola races and glittering procession of medieval barges sweep down the Grand Canal.

It's impossible to write about Venice - so many authors and painters have been here before. I've visited the city many times by air and train, even by Orient Express, but I'd love to press a replay button and sweep in once again by sea on the MS Minerva arriving on some golden autumn morning.

FACT FILE

Swan Hellenic, 77 New Oxford Street, London WCIA 1PP (0171 800 2200) runs year-round cruises on the Minerva, always with guest lecturers on board. A nine-day "Crucible of Civilisation" Red Sea cruise in March with a scuba diving and a marine biologist, as well as Dr Anthony Clare and classical and Egyptian experts on board, costs from pounds l,630. A 15-day Italian cruise in May, "A Spring Peregrination", similar to "Italian Reflections", costs from pounds 2,500. Most excursions are included in the prices and, mercy be, there's no tipping.

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