WISE UP ON THIS CLASSIC CRUISE; from Art to Architecture and Ancient History -- an Epic Voyage of Discovery in the Med

Article excerpt

Byline: by Tony Rennell

APLEASANT dinner is over and the throng of passengers heads to the nightly 'show' in the lecture hall. There are no boy bands, no glitzy dancers, no stand-up comedians waiting to entertain us on the cruise ship Aegean Odyssey, thank heavens.

Instead, a professor of architecture and archaeology expounds on the Roman emperor Diocletian and his persecution of Christians 1,700 years ago. Tomorrow, we land at Split in Croatia and visit his palace. This is homework time.

Next day, the rain is relentless in the palace courtyards, its ancient limestone steps and alleys wet underfoot and slippery. But the desire for knowledge cannot be so easily dampened and we -- a party of visitors getting on in years and not as nimble as we once were -- press on regardless, proof of that axiom that education is wasted on the young.

Universities may be full of youngsters who party all night, sleep late and skip lectures, but the appetites and habits of us eager-to-learn silverhaired 'students' are different. At our age, there is no time to waste. Tempus fugit.

We are unashamed culture vultures. The really keen swot up in the on-board library. There can't be many cruise ships in the world that carry complete and well-thumbed sets of Virgil, Homer, Herodotus and the like, but this one does.

We are travelling with Voyages to Antiquity, an independent cruise company with one small ship. In summer and autumn, she loops from one end of the Mediterranean to the other on a journey through the glories of ancient civilisation.

Carrying a maximum of 380 passengers at a time, she is almost a house-boat compared with some of the 4,000-plus leviathans and floating people palaces that power their way through these waters.

This is not a trip for thrill-junkies, beach-bums or the cerebrallychallenged, but it is a perfect busman's holiday for the intellectually inclined, though you don't need a double-first from Cambridge.

You can laze beside the pool if you want, but the serious business of plunging into the past is what the majority are here for. The good food, comfortable cabins and graceful Filipino service are bonuses.

Venice is the starting point for our particular leg of this historical travelogue, and we begin with a private and privileged twilight tour of St Mark's Basilica and its golden mosaics after the crowds have gone. Our finer senses uplifted, it's then back on board for a late supper of superb, locally-caught fish and refreshing sleep.

Overnight, we nose out of the lagoon, cross the Adriatic and wake up beside the coastline of Croatia, its rugged cliffs pepper-potted with gaping caves backed by snowcapped mountains.

This magical land, sandwiched between the high civilisations of Greece and Rome, has gone by many names over the centuries. It was Dalmatia to the Romans and Illyria to Shakespeare, who, needing a place of mystery for Twelfth Night, had his wanderers ship-wrecked here.

Heading south towards Greece, we thread our way through an archipelago of green islands, mostly uninhabited apart from the occasional church or lighthouse. The Venetians sailed these waters carrying treasures from the east. Pirates preyed on fleets of ships from Byzantium.

There is history in each wave and cove, and a glimpse of past civilisations at every port. Roman and Romanesque, Gothic and Crusader, jostle side by side, a living timeline of Europe's past.

The tours when we dock are demanding, physically and mentally. …