top of page

Cruising MSC Divina 21-28 July

The alarm went off at 7:20 Friday morning at the flat in Rome, and I met the Uber taxi just before 8. The trip to the train station took 10 minutes, so I had an hour to get to the platform and get on the train. There was an earlier train to Civitavecchia, so a brief stop at the kiosk and I’d changed my ticket to 8:42 and got to ride an empty train, arriving about 10. Once in the port city, I took my time pushing and pulling the luggage, but missed the right turn where I would pass the cathedral, instead walking the more difficult path along the waterside as I advanced toward the cruise shuttle stop (Fermata Bus Navetta) by passing the boats and nets of the fishermen, and squeezing through a few portals. Once at the meet point, I noted that the arriving buses were still unloading passengers – there were three ships in port.

Waiting in pre-board area, MSC Divina at Civitavecchia
Waiting in pre-board area

Queuing up, the crowd splits into passenger groups for the NCL Getaway, Costa Smerelda and my ship, the MSC Divina. Once we were bused to the pier, the whole experience devolved to one queue after another. While they moved well, the lines were very long, with a maze of stanchions running from one end to the other, where we made a u-turn around the end pilon, and rolled down the next. For those who kept count of steps, they certainly got them that morning. Our first checkpoint was for documents (boarding pass) after which we filtered through the very few security scanners. That done, we were sent into a large room (and then another, overflow room) to sit and wait. Called in groups, we were processed into the ship, having a photo taken and cabin cards were issued

Finally ready to board, I was able to leave my small roller (minus the journal and camera) in the casino, as my cabin 11237 wouldn’t be ready until 2:30. The buffet was the sole dining option, so I headed up, getting a shot or two of the atrium and a bar. Selecting items from the specials board, I had carrots with petit pois, garlic bread, frittata and shepherd’s pie. With a glass of water, juggling the journal and camera, I began looking for an empty spot to eat. Seeing a woman solo at a table for 4, I asked if I could join her. She nodded, so I sat down, learning she was French. Her male partner soon returned, but we all just ate our food. When the next table opened, two Italian women sat down. After viewing us, they up and moved to a table further away. Older, very short (maybe 5-foot?) my notes suggested that their look and mien screamed “Strega”; and I realized that the ship would probably be full of them!

After lunch I went topside and took pictures of the pool and the harbor. Heading down to explore, I noted the extensive use of mirrors, and that, other than the displays of historic black-and-white photos from the 50’s, every floor looked the same. My cabin was ready early, so I retrieved my small roller. An inside cabin, three closets lined the entry on the right, with a separate bath (shower, toilet, sink) up a step. A desk with a hassock were next to the closet (already filled with too much crap) as the room expanded for the corner credenza (with the mini frig) and the king bed with side tables.

I unpacked the small roller, and then left to visit and check-in with my muster station. A bit more roaming to get oriented, I went back to the cabin to find my bag had been delivered, so I finished unpacking. As my new large roller was too wide, I had to keep it in a closet. And I bemoaned that there just wasn’t’ enough shelf space for my clothing. [And yes, I realize I had much more than typical for a week’s cruise.] I headed to a lounge on deck 6 to sit by a window (phone coverage!) and watch as we left the port.

I’d requested late dining with a group. MSC assigned me otherwise, so I met with the maître d’ and kept getting blowback. They finally seat me at table 752, solo, as an Italian couple arrive, he starts shouting and storms off. This didn’t bode well. Then the menu is by QR code only, so I need to order using a waiter’s phone.

Aubergine parmigiana, Neapolitan style; Nordic salad; leg of lamb with herbs. The eggplant was good, but should have been hotter, and needed salt and pepper. The salad was small and drowning in dressing. The lamb, which came with green beans, potato and tomato, was also cool and tough. With the meal, I had a glass of the house cab. For dessert, a pistachio cake. Certainly not an event!

No notes, but I probably headed to a bar to find Scotch.

Day 2 – Siracusa: I headed to the dining room, The Black Crab, and was seated with two couples, one from Brazil, the other from Italy. I asked for oatmeal with raisins and brown sugar, a banana, OJ and coffee. The OJ was overly sweet. The Brazilians got great service, while my order was wrong, getting muesli to start. Then plain oatmeal. I voiced my displeasure to the head waiter, and Shazam! The correct meal was delivered. Meanwhile, the Italians sat and stewed, truly ignored.

We were sailing between Calabria and northern Sicily, so the phone had coverage. I spoke with Rey, a waiter, to get a better understanding of the ship’s practices. Then I headed to the excursion talk in the Jazz Bar, but couldn’t find it in time. Deck 7 was an obstacle course, in preparation for the afternoon docking. I found a quiet spot to sit and use my phone on the internet, at least for a while. Once coverage failed, I went to my cabin, where I met my steward, Juan. I had had to try my card key 6 times before it allowed me in, so he made the call to maintenance to check the battery. I also asked about the voicemail light, since I couldn’t figure out how to retrieve. I was promised a follow-up.

Over the speaker system came an announcement advising folks to plan on avoiding leaving the ship until 4pm, as the heat would be extreme. Announcements were given in 5 languages, fortunately, with English first, I could move on. After about an hour, I headed down to the Black Crab for seated lunch.

This time I remembered to get a photo of the wall-mounted menu, so I was able to order my three appetizers: vegetable spring rolls, rural salad, and cream of sweetcorn soup. For my main, saltimbocca Roman-style, with water and an Arnold Palmer, and no dessert.

After lunch, I made the quick stop at my cabin to grab my hat and camera. Out and off the ship, I started walking towards the cathedral. On an island, I crossed on the Ponte Santa Lucia and stopped at the ruins of the Tempio di Apollo. Shaded narrow streets led south to the Piazza Duomo, with its north wall along the Piazza Minerva. The Cattedrale metropolitana della Natività di Maria Santissima has an elaborate baroque façade.

Cattedrale metropolitana della Natività di Maria Santissima, SIracusa
Cattedrale Metropolitana della Natività di Maria Santissima, SIracusa

Built with off white stone, the long nave wall of arches is adorned only with metal light fixtures. The vault above the clerestory windows is a peaked timber roof. Ribbed Doric arches line the side aisles, with pedestals supporting statues of saints. A Saturday, the pews in the front portion of the nave were draped in white cloths, in preparation for a wedding. Event coordinator staff were racing about, being rather brusque and uncivil to any visitor, which surprised me. (Charging a 2€ entry fee, the church wasn’t about to close it until necessary.) The high altar sits in the apse behind the small full dome at the end of the quire. Along the south aisle, a chapel to St Lucia (with her relics) is venerated, and there are walks leading to the episcopal buildings, including the treasury. Interetsingly, the columns of the old temple are incorporated into the interior walls.

Leaving, I rounded the corner to see if I could walk around the cathedral, and found the tourist office. A most helpful woman pointed me to the safe ATMs in town, let me use the staff WC, and gave me directions on the use of the city bus system, as I was 2km from the old duomo. I chose to walk (ship departure was 9pm, and it was 3:30) as I located the recommended ATM, passed through the Piazza Archimede with its Fontana di Diana, and crossed on the Ponte Umberto I to leave the island, espying the docked Divina.

Walking the Corso Timoleonte, staying in the shade as much as possible, a tall white ribbed cone-like structure began to appear in front of me. The Basilica Santuario Madonna della Lacrime was just beyond the Zona Archeologica di Piazza della Vittoria (Santuario di Demetra e Kore), which showed no active archeological undertakings. The Sanctuary has 16 chapels, encircling the nave. No photography was permitted of the statue of the Madonna of the Immaculate Heart which miraculously shed tears in 1953.

Continuing north, I reached the Ex Cattedrale San Giovanni alle Catacombe, an archeological site which includes extensive catacombs. I arrived half an hour before the 5:30 guided tour in Italian and English, for which I paid 10€ (included the church, catacomb and tomb.) A fellow visitor, I spoke with a young man (half Greek) getting his masters in photography while we waited in the shade. Originally a Greek settlement, the catacombs had initially been used as aqueducts to bring water to the port, but were abandoned by the Romans. Persecuted Christians began using them for meetings and services, as well as a cemetery.

Ex Cattedrale San Giovanni alle Catacombe, Siracusa
Ex Cattedrale San Giovanni alle Catacombe, Siracusa

The interior of the neighboring church was closed and not available; the neighboring ruins of a former church include an open space, now used as the open-air nave and sanctuary, available for weddings. Our guide then took us down stairs, to a church space which had formerly been a cathedral. (Time lines are confusing, as the cathedral existed in the seventh century, so post-Constantine, Christians wouldn’t need to be underground.) The church had been rebuilt many times, as it had been sacked by Muslims, Normans, nature (earthquakes.) We returned to the surface, and were instructed to don a hard hat, and that photography would not be permitted.

Down stairs into the catacomb, the floor was dirt, and the ceiling was low. Lighting was sufficient for many of us to surreptitiously get a few photos off. [I got two worth sharing.] We saw multiple tombs, sarcophagi, graves and an underground chapel. Extremely interesting, well worth the cost and time. Back to sunlight, I got a shot of the ruins, noting that a service (wedding?) looked to be starting. Finding their drop point, I was able to get a taxi which took me back to the ship.

The lock to my cabin door seemed to be fixed, but the phone still flashed with a voicemail. Told someone would assist, I waited 20 minutes and finally took a shower to prepare for dinner. At the Villa Rosa dining room, I was still not assigned a seat – they offered me late dining (10pm) which I politely declined. After delays, I was offered a seat at a table with Spaniards or Italians, and I said fine, whichever. I was seated at table 875, capacity 6, and no one else showed up.

Ordering roast beef-wrapped asparagus en bellevue and cream of Argenteuil asparagus soup to start, I asked for a glass of house red wine. My main was dill-flavoured sea bream. My wine glass was refilled a few times, including with the cheese plate I had for dessert. I made my way up to the Sports Bar on Deck 7 for a Scotch. While it was a lightly poured double Glenmorangie, I tipped the barkeep which paid dividends the rest of the trip. It also seemed that English-speaking passengers were hanging in this very noisy bar.

While sailing in the morning, I went to the Customer Service desk with questions. Most important, I'd noticed that the day's schedule lacked any solo/single activities. I asked if they would be provided/organized, to be told that MSC doesn't have those kinds of functions: such travelers were completely on their own. And a passenger-organized get-together wasn't possible either.

Day 3 – Malta: I’d anticipated a time change (the notice was an advance warning for the coming evening) so while I was up at 9 (expecting it to be 8), I missed seated breakfast which is served from 7 to 8:30. So I went up to deck 14 to the Calumet buffet and got a banana and a bowl of oatmeal. We had been in the port of La Valetta since 7, so after breakfast I grabbed the hat, string bag backpack and camera and headed down to the pier and the excursions staff. Given a red wristband, I was able to use the hop on-hop off tourist bus, which made stops in Mdina and “city center”. The bus was open air, double-decker, I anticipated a round-the-island survey.

Our first stop was the stop for La Valletta, probably a good half kilometer from the actual center of the city. I stayed on, and we rolled west out of the city and honed in on the hilltop cities of Mdina and Rabat.

Katidral Metropolitan Ta’ San Pawl, Mdina
Katidral Metropolitan Ta’ San Pawl, Mdina

The dome of cathedral was visible from a distance, so I zoomed as best as possible, waiting for still moments and getting my “not in the shadow of” shots. And then we climbed the hill, stopping next to the horse-drawn carriages, where we were able to get off in Rabat. It was a fairly brief stroll therough the gates over twisty, cobblestoned streets to get to the Pjazza San Pawl in Mdina, in front of the Katidral Metropolitan Ta’ San Pawl. With the doors being open, I entered, to find that Mass was underway, at the Sanctus.

Standing in the back, I waited until the service ended, and was able to get a handful of interior shots from the entryway before being ushered out as the building was being closed. I was allowed to advance (without my camera on) to say a few prayers for my mother and grandfather, and the priest gave me his blessing when I asked.

Returning to the drop point, the next bus arrived and by noon we were off, heading back first to the ship, and then into the capitol. The countryside remined me of California, with golden dry plants and soil, and the occasional green of a tree or bush, rolling hills. From the “city center” stop, I walked across a wide plaza and past the Triton fountain to the gateway into La Valetta, with some serious fortifications. (My phone wasn’t getting data, so I wasn’t able to use Maps.)

Past some new modern governmental Parliament buildings, I continued along Republic Street four blocks to Triq San Gwann where a right turn brought to the front of the Kon-Katidral ta’ San Ġwann. Double towers bracket the central entrance, the sand-colored stone of the baroque façade looming over the plaza in front. It ws Sunday, and unfortunately closed in the afternoon. I took a few shots and tried to figure out where the third cathedral on the island was.

Kon-Katidral ta’ San Ġwann, Valletta
Kon-Katidral ta’ San Ġwann, Valletta

The Anglican pro-cathedral honors St Paul, and I suspect there are at least a dozen churches with that name. Locals weren’t terribly helpful, as I got directions to St Paul of the Shipwreck on St Paul Street first. Closed, a Catholic church, it faced onto a rather narrow street and pictures were frustrating. Since it was labeled in Maltese, I didn’t realize it was Catholic, so thought I’d reached my goal. Trying to find my way back to where I’d gotten some help from a waitress, I chanced upon a directional sign for the Anglican church near the Sanctuario (Bażilika Santwarju tal-Madonna tal-Karmnu). Eventually coming to a square whose piazza was being repaved with stone, the red stoned Greek-temple-like structure turned out to be the Pro-Cathedral and Collegiate Church of Saint Paul. It was also closed, as well a construction-fencing barrier restricted access, but I tread carefully, only to be frustrated by the canopy of a tree situated out front.

Facade, Pro-Cathedral and Collegiate Church of Saint Paul, Valletta
Pro-Cathedral and Collegiate Church of Saint Paul, Valletta

As I was on the opposite side of the peninsula that is the city, I began a zigzag course to head to the gate and the bus back to the ship. At the corner with the Catholic cathedral, I sat at the café for a bit, sipping a chilled Maltese white and a bottle of water. Pushing onward, I found the drop point, and after waiting a bit (the woman coordinator said 5, it was closer to 15 minutes) and I was on my way to the ship. Once on board, I camped at a bar and had two club sodas and bitters.

Up to the buffet, I made a salad of spinach, arugula, red cabbage, carrots and walnuts. After finishing my ruffage for the day, I took two desserts to the cabin.

Trying the TV to see if I could get some information, it was still broadcasting the safety video. Finding the menu, I was frustrated to not be able to get real-time account information. This, apparently, was only available using the app on a smartphone. (I will not put more apps on the phone which can track.) And then you’d need the ship’s WiFi, which is a convenient upcharge. I was disliking MSC more and more. Needing to backup 3 days’ worth of photos, I found the process to be running very slowly. I suspected that my equipment was gradually failing, so started the transfers and took a shower. As the ship left the dock, I remembered to put my phone in airplane mode, as we had a sea day coming.

And left the A21 (US) phone in the charger, taking the A14 (EU) one for pictures. Seated at table 875 again, still solo, I started with seafood and vegetable pot stickers, vitello tonnato, and the carrot and ginger soup. For the main, oven-roasted veal leg Goccia d’Oro, which I followed with the (meager) cheese plate.

After dinner I returned to the Sports Bar and wound up talking with a Welsh couple, her daughter and granddaughter. Nice folks.

Day 4 – at sea: There was a time change overnight, losing an hour as we moved east. As seated dining is only 7-8:30am, I wasn’t up in time, so I headed to the buffet to get oatmeal. It was readily apparent that the facility was not designed (nor staffed) to handle a fully booked ship, particularly trying to feed 4000+. There were queues to get in, to get seated. A real fail!

After breakfast, I headed downstairs to the cabin, where I reflected on the ship’s décor. The only variation in the stairwells or elevator banks, to aid in identifying one’s location, were the large black-and-white (press) photos of film stars of the 50’s and 60’s, mostly in Italian settings. They had explanatory paragraphs in Italian and English. Going up and then coming down, I also noted that the top two decks were muggy and much warmer than below.

After 3 days, most of which I’d spent off ship, I was still trying to figure out the layout. On the public decks, there were very few straight lines for getting from one point to another. Doorways were often blocked, requiring circling around. I had a challenge in finding a quiet space near a porthole where I could read or write – everywhere, it seemed folks were shouting their conversations as they moved about.

Lunchtime, and I headed to the Black Crab dining room. My waitstaff was a young woman from Kenya, Yasmin. She and I talked throughout the meal, and I learned the passenger manifest was 4305 (near capacity) with about 1500 staff. I started with a Waldorf salad, and had the legume soup. No pictures, and my notes say that the soup was good, with nice flavors and textures. The salad was standard, and included tough chicken. Penne pasta for a main, which came cool, lightly dressed with little “gravy” and little flavor. Grated cheese didn’t improve it. I asked for two desserts, with an espresso: the raspberry chocolate tart had a filling that felt like fig, with no chocolate evident; the nougatine sundae was terrific. The coffee didn’t appear until I asked again, and I got a cool half portion which was evidently not fresh.

After lunch I found a quiet space on deck 6 near the future cruise desk. While I was typing the trip report on the Chromebook, a neighboring couple were planning the next day in Santorini. I eventually chimed in, and then joined them. They both do cruise sales for Carnival; she a petite native of Columbia, he a tall and big Croatian. After a bit, they mentioned getting lunch, so I chased them off to the buffet, as it was closing in 20 minutes. (We saw one another off and on for the rest of the trip.)

Getting back to the travel narrative, I discovered that I didn’t have the Strasbourg photos on the computer, so it was driven completely by my notes and memory. (I updated it later.) I proofed the Germany II notes, so it would be ready to fill with pictures and post once I had an internet connection. My next writing assignment would start with Switzerland.

The ship hosted Gala Night, so I broke out the suit and wore it to dinner, and didn’t bring the journal. My regular server, Oscar, selected an Italian wine for me to enjoy at dinner, a young Tuscan Santa Cristina. To start I had the seafood cocktail and the baked escargot in pastry. Despite the dressing, the seafood was tasty, while the snails proved to be more pastry than gastropod. Oscar recommended the brie in brioche, so after taking a couple of pictures of me, a fried ball sitting in a dark red sauce appeared. It was okay. My main was duck a l’orange, two breasts with red cabbage and potato fritters, which was actually great. I persisted with the cheese plate, enjoying the blue and parmesan chunks.

After dinner I headed to the Sports Bar for a whiskey. Omar was pouring the Glenmorangie with a heavy hand, and the English-speaking were drifting in and out, always good for a chat. The only downside was the short bowling alley, which was noisy as hell.

Day 5 – Santorini: At the Black Crab, I got oatmeal that was hot but in a small bowl, a banana that was peeled and sliced, but cool coffee the first time. We were anchored, so my phone was delivering about 130 emails! I was in tender group 4, so after I collected the hat and camera, we were called and moved through the ship to the smaller boat. Once on land, there were three choices: walk (climb), ride a donkey, or join the queue to ride the funicular. I went with the latter, spending about double to triple the time the first two choices took.

A large crowd of hot, sweaty, tired folks were jostling and bumping one another, testing just about anyone’s last nerve. (There’s a story here.) After an hour and 45 minutes, I reached to top.

Exterior facade, Cathedral of Saint John the Baptist, Santorini
Cathedral of Saint John the Baptist, Santorini

The Catholic Cathedral of Saint John the Baptist was almost directly off the cable car, jammed into the limited space on the top of the island. With 4 visible altars, the church seemed wider than deep, albeit its footprint is a Greek cross. In the center setback facing the space under the dome, a painting of the patron saint is fit into the altarpiece, with a wooden cathedra against the wainscotting. The exterior was the traditional whitewashed stucco, with the dome and the belltower painted in peach and blue-gray.

Candlemas Holy Orthodox Metropolitan Cathedral, Santorini
Candlemas Holy Orthodox Metropolitan Cathedral, Santorini

Walking due south a half kilometer, past too many trinket and gift shops, and eateries, I arrived at the Candlemas Holy Orthodox Metropolitan Cathedral. Brilliant white in the glaring sun, its footprint is nearly square, a dome at its center, and attached to a similarly sized walled cloister to its south. A belltower stands at the far southern end. Inside, the carved wooden iconostasis was covered with icons of the saints. More icons covered spaces on columns and walls around the interior.

As most orthodox churches, options for sitting are limited. The cloister is a lovely, peaceful space, with not many visitors while I was there. [The cathedral’s name, Candlemas, refers to the dual event, the presentation of Jesus in the temple, and the purification of Mary. Jewish tradition has parents giving their child to the temple and then “buying it back.” A second tradition is that a new mother will have a ritual bath 40 days after the birth.]

Having accomplished all I needed on Santorini, and feeling extremely crowded and claustrophobic, I took pictures out towards the Divina in the harbor, of the streets and slopes below the hilltop, as I gradually reached the tram for the return ride down to the port.

Immediately onto a tender, there was a 10-minute wait to get a fuller load, and we headed back to the ship. After a bit of jockeying (it seemed the crew was unsure which side to dock), I was on board and heading immediately to the Black Crab for lunch. I’d been off the ship for 3 hours.

Lunch was quiet, the room nearly empty. I ordered all three of the starters: Spanish tapas, Madison salad and a cream of pea soup. Oscar, my dinner server espied me, and took over my service. The tapas were tasty; the soup a bit thin, but I like the inclusion of mint; and the salad was excellent.

When I looked out the window, I could see a tender returning to the ship. For a main, I ordered the Cuban sandwich. It hadn’t been on the grill long enough for the cheese to warm up, much less melt. As a crispy fries eater, these were so undercooked to be useless. An unfortunate disappointment, I only ate half the sandwich. I had a glass of draft beer and water during the meal, and two scoops of lemon sorbet at the end. I headed to the cabin for a nap.

With the ship due to get underway at 4pm, I had found a seat in an unused lounge by the porthole with a view of the island. I was able to type up Bern and both days in Basel, and to proof both Germany II and Strasbourg. Feeling that I’d accomplished a great deal, I returned to the cabin and got ready for dinner. Arriving at 7:30 in Villa Rosa, I was taken aside and moved to a table for two, so the other could be used for Italians (who never showed up.)

Oscar was highly apologetic (it wasn’t his fault), but I was livid. I resolved to never sail MSC again. I started with the New England clam chowder. The “salad” was a slice of roasted veal, over a very small stack of greens, topped with Gran Padano cheese. My main was the grilled blacken salmon, and I again ended with the cheese plate.

A passenger had experienced a medical emergency, and the ship held in port (we were due to dock in Mykonos at 8:30 pm to allow folks to party all night.) Periodic announcements provided little information, and we were not underway until 9pm. Shortly thereafter, the captain announced we would not dock in Mykonos until 5:30 am, as the ship had been closed out of the port.

Day 6 – Mykonos: After breakfast, I headed to the theater to meet up with those taking the same excursion as I’d booked. Thirty-eight joined Kevin on bus #33 and we set off for an orthodox monastery located on the top of a hill. The Monastery of Tourliani is a gilded gem of a religious site, filled with icons and treasures, almost a museum.

After less than a half hour, we moved to a local taverna on the town square, where we sat in smaller groups for a taste of ouzo and some Greek tapas. My table had two women from Wurzburg and a trio family from Malta.