Naples:life,death &
                Miracle contact: Jeff Matthews

 entry April 2011   

he Cruise

...smite the sounding furrows; for my purpose holds
To sail beyond the sunset and get to the buffet table
before that fat guy who always takes all the shrimp.

   —(with intense apologies to the memory of Alfred, Lord Tennyson)

Like any Mediterranean cruise ship that calls at Naples, Palermo, Palma, Barcelona, Marseilles, and Genoa, my ship had just what you would expect: hundreds of food service and cabin cleaning personnel from Indonesia and a rootin'-tootin' fine Tex-Mex restaurant down yonder on deck 7. Yo-ho-ho and a bottle of hot sauce! The joint is replete with a Highway 66 road sign, a small bowling alley, a small cactus centerpiece for each wooden table, and a gallery of large B&W photos from old 1930s and 40s B-westerns, all starring Tex-This Guy, Fuzzy-That Guy and others whose names you never remember (although they did have one of Roy & Dale). Interestingly, much of the decor in the other dining rooms consists of native Indonesian masks. I don’t know why that should be the case for cruise ships that sell themselves as “Mediterranean.” Maybe the company got a good deal: take the service personnel and get the art work for free.

Not that there was no connection to Naples. There had to be; after all, that's where we embarked on my first, last, one and only
please God, never again(!) voyage aboard a gigantic cruise ship. I was so looking forward to strolling around 16 passenger decks, riding up and down the countless elevators and scaring fellow passengers by pulling down my eye patch and growling, "Arrr, matey! Belay that! Fortune rides the shoulders of them what schemes! Here, have a swig of bilge.” Alas, the ship was full of unappreciative riff-raff. (I made a mental note to have them battened down at some point during the voyage.) I didn’t know they were let out of steerage to roam around! It’s one of the great shames of our age that the lower orders can now travel freely, reproduce without permission and even vote (!) instead of being chained to an oar, lathe or loom. Jefferson, thou shouldst be living at this hour.

Check out these stats: Tonnage: 133,500; Length: 1,093.5 feet (333.30 m). Don't confuse gross register tons with gross tonnage, deadweight tonnage, net tonnage, or displacement. Whatever, it can carry 5,000 people, more or less like the largest aircraft carrier. ("Hmmmpphh!" said Dear G., life-long and eternally young friend who remembers when ships were ships. She looked at my vessel and sniffed, "What a barge. We were on a ship built in the late 50's in Holland for transatlantic travel. It looked like a ship should—center smokestack, black Plimsoll line—was beautifully made, and nicely tattered at the edges.")

So just leaving from Naples doesn't really count as being "related to Naples," granted, but I checked out the history of our good ship, Splendida (photos, top & left) and noticed some real connections. It (without a bit more salt in my lungs, I can't quite bring myself to say "she" for a ship; besides, there's a real "she" coming up) was built by the STX Europe yards in St. Nazaire on the Breton coast of France. It entered service in July of 2009, being christened in Barcelona by none other than Sophia Loren (!), local Pozzuoli girl and the "real she" referred to, above. That's one connection to Naples.

Two is kind of spooky. The Splendida belongs to the MSC (Mediterranean Shipping Company) Cruise line, which is the successor company to the Lauro Lines, founded by the "Neapolitan Onassis," the wheeler-dealer magnate and popular mayor of Naples, il Commandante, Achille Lauro. Some may remember the sad history of the flagship, the Achille Lauro; it was hijacked by members of the Palestine Liberation Front in 1985. (I recall the last name, Klinghoffer, of the wheelchair-bound gentleman whom those cowardly bastards pushed overboard to his death.) Subsequently, the passenger liner continued in service until 1994 when she (ahhhh, finally—I feel it!) caught fire off the coast of Somalia, was abandoned, and sank. Earlier, in 1989, the Lauro fleet was bought by MSC and renamed Star Lauro Cruises. In 1995, the company name was then changed to MSC Cruises and here we are.

Our voyage was a round trip to the above-named ports. Originally, we were supposed to call in Tunis, but the Captain-Hooks-That-Be wisely decided to avoid North Africa. Libya-Shmibya—it’s all Africa, and we didn't want NATO pilots mistaking our vessel for one of Gaddafi's tanks. Not that they could ever hit one.

The next morning when young Dawn had again spread her rose-red fingers above the wine-dark sea (I had Robert Fagles translation of The Odyssey with me!) we were in Palermo. I got off and wandered around the docks. Sicilians are still so much in love with their history that even small vendors’ carts and mobile puppet theaters (photo) are decorated with colorful scenes from the life of Roger the Norman, the founder of the Kingdom of Sicily after it was taken back from the Arabs in the 11th century.

We sailed from Palermo (metaphorically, that is—you'd need a lot of sheets to move 135,000 tons) when the roads of the world had darkened once again. They went so dark, in fact, that the captain got lost and the next morning we were off a gigantic land mass on the port side. (That's the opposite of starboard for you landlubbers. Aaaaarr!) It was Africa—Tunisia, even though we weren’t supposed to call there. We didn’t really, but we did idle for a while, and I noticed a launch coming out from the harbor. Maybe we were trading smuggled wares for local women. I asked the captain to let me scat-sing Dizzy Gillespie's Night in Tunisia over the ship’s speaker system. Again, the scurvy rabble grew unruly.

We actually had some rough seas on the way to Palma de Majorca—rough enough to roll us around a bit and keep some of the passengers and their obnoxious brood away from the feeding trough. Palma is not a sleepy village on a tiny island; currently, there are about 400,000 persons in the city of Palma (of 850,000, total, on the entire island of Majorca—roughly a rectangle, 60 km/37 miles on a side). Palma has a long port road lined by what look to be very recent high-rise apartments. There is a lovely, large church on the sea-side—the Cathedral of Santa Maria of Palma, also called La Seu (photo, right). It is in the style known as Catalan Gothic and built on the site of a pre-existing Arab mosque. It was begun in 1229 and finished in 1601 [sic!]. (And you thought you had problems with contractors!)

On to the mainland. I walked around the port of Barcelona the next morning. It is amazingly clean and a tourist attraction in itself. The commercial or industrial port with the cranes and containers shades over neatly into the tourist port and pleasure craft, the section of the city near the tall column atop which is a great statue of Christopher Columbus pointing seaward (photo, left). There is a long row of buildings along the port in ornate late 19th-century architecture
(photo, right) of the style known in Italy as barochetto romano (the Mergellina train station in Naples is an example); that is, anachronistically ornate, replete with cherubs and griffins mixed with the floral swirls and metals of Art Nouveau. There is even an aerial cabin lift over the port of Barcelona so you can glide above and take it all in. I think the attractive tourist port (with a lovely promenade called the Vell) must be a result of a grand sprucing up for the 1992 Olympics. I never made it to the Catalonia Historical Museum in Barcelona. I guess this is another of the cities I have to come back to, although I was here many years ago. I don’t remember the circumstances, but I remember being in the Gaudì Sagrada Familia cathedral in the 1960s. I think I could live in Barcelona and like it very much. I note that they now have a memorial Plaza de Toros—“memorial” because Catalonia was the first province in Spain to do away with the blood-sport of bull fighting. Apparently, we tried that in Naples once, too.

Now we are bound for Marseilles, running along the coast for part of the way and then across the Gulf of Lion. As we left the Port of Barcelona, we sailed past the Queen Mary II docked there. I don’t think I even knew that there was such a ship. She's of the Cunard Line, just like the original, which, I recall, is now a floating museum or restaurant or brothel in the port of Long Beach, California.

Marseilles is the second largest city in France. It has a reputation for good weather and striking colors that attract artists such as Cezanne. (I think it must be here or near here that every Englishman I have ever met is always talking about when he speaks of vacationing in—or having a home in—the “south of France"—pronounced Frahnce, naturally.) Like Naples—and unlike Barcelona—the port of Marseilles looks like a port should. At least the Old Port does. It looks the worse for wear, but ports take a beating. The whole port area of Marseilles is spread for 37 km along the coast. I impressed myself by accidentally taking a photo (right) of a famous place!—the Château d'If.  This is where the main character in Alexandre Dumas' The Count of Monte Cristo, Edmond Dantès, was imprisoned. (Dumas had a home in Naples, too, by the way. See that last link.) I had not known that the Château was on the island of If, one of four islands known as the Frioul archipelago off of Marseilles. (The island of If is indeed where the hero was imprisoned, but I had confused it with the island of Montecristo in the Tuscan archipelago; that is the island he eventually bought and where he plotted his revenge.) Historically, Marseilles has quite an important connection with Naples. Marseilles was in the hands of the Angevin dynasty when that house took the Kingdom of Sicily from the heirs of Frederick II in the 1260s; the Angevins then lost Sicily almost immediately to their bitter enemies, the Aragonese, rulers of a vast sea-faring entity called The Crown of Aragon. It was from Marseilles that Angevins tried to retake Sicily and failed.

We cruised to Genoa along part of the French coast that used to be part of the Italian Savoy state, the Kingdom of Piedmont and Sardinia. The Savoys were not nearly as adept at "stomping" as they thought and traded that bit of coast to France in exchange for military help against the Austrians during the Italian wars of unification in the 1800s. The Savoys swapped away Nice, birthplace of Giuseppe Garibaldi! That led a German guide we once heard to refer to Garibaldi as a “Frenchman.” My wife was not amused.

Genoa is the birthplace of Columbus, yes, but, more in the Neapolitan vein, we docked right near the Varco dei Mille, the Pier of the Thousand, near the old port building (photo, right) the spot from which Garibaldi set sail with his One Thousand troops in 1860 aboard three leaky tubs bound for Sicily to begin the conquest of The Kingdom of the Two Sicilies, the first major military step in the unification of the modern nation state of Italy. The 150th anniversary of that unification has just been celebrated in one way or another throughout the nation, perhaps less so among some acquaintances of mine in Naples who call themselves Duosiciliani—citizens of the Two Sicilies. (In U.S. terms, think of the Daughters of the Confederacy.)

Genoa had really been the first port on the cruise for many, so we disembarked all sorts of passengers, only to take on their replacements. One more leg to Naples, where we had embarked. The ship’s log is posted on TV screens at various places onboard. They always give the information in "sailorese": knots and nautical miles—both gobbledygook to passengers, most of whom are metric junkies and who don't even know if "starboard" means up or down. Actually, knots and nautical miles don’t mean much even to English-speaking landlubbers.

I think this particular cruise just goes in the same clockwise circle for nine months a year. The young woman who kept our cabin (or is it a stateroom? I don't know the difference) —a cheerful 23-year-old from Bali— says she goes home for the other three months. I can’t imagine she wants to do this forever, but times are tough all over. I wonder if she would be intrigued—if, indeed, she knows about it—by Western romanticizing of the island of her birth. Maybe I’ll ask her to join me in a chorus of "Bali Ha'i" (also spelled "Bali Hai," but not "High" and especially not "Hi") by Richard Rodgers, the great Indonesian tune-smith. For some reason I am reminded of The Student Prince, written in English by Sigmund Romberg and his wife, Dorothy Donnely, but sometimes performed in German at the castle in Heidelberg, Germany, so tourists can feel that they are getting the “real thing.” Or the Germans who used to ask me about the famous cowboy, Old Shatterhand, and great Indian chief, Winnetou, both total inventions of Karl May (1842-1912) (kind of a German Edgar Rice Burroughs) who wrote reams in German about the American west without ever having been there. The Italians, too, have a famous adventure writer, Emilio Salgari (1862-1911); he concocted an Indonesian/Malaysian pirate/Robin Hood named Sandokan. Salgari never left  Italy, but he sure knew how to make stuff up. In terms of popularity in Italian letters, they tell me that Dante is a distant second to Salgari. I think I saw Sandokan chowing down in the Tex-Mex place on deck 7, but maybe I was imagining things.

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