Voyage of pleasure in the Med

There’s emotion, nostalgia, and chance encounters for John Irving on his voyage into the unknown, from Italy to Istanbul.

By John Irving
A pleasure cruise from Civitavecchia, just west of Rome, to Istanbul - it's not exactly a voyage up the Orinoco in a dug-out canoe, but I've never been east of Italy before, never mind boarded a cruise ship. In my own way I'm entering the Great Unknown.
I say pleasure cruise, but it isn't all pleasure. The first port of call on our 12-night voyage aboard Celebrity Constellation is the Turkish city of Çanakkale, across the narrow strait from the Gallipoli peninsula. Many of the 1,400 Australians and New Zealanders aboard have come to commemorate Anzac Day on the battlefield. Touchingly, many of them have brought along the diaries and mementos of great uncles and grandfathers who fought and died in the conflict. For them it's also a voyage of remembrance.
The ship set sail from Florida a month ago with several hundred Americans on board, and by the time we leave Civitavecchia I'm one of 2,000 or so passengers. Celebrity Constellation, 294 metres long and 12 decks tall, is one of 10 ships in the Celebrity Cruises fleet. The company was founded in 1988 by the Greek Chandris Group (what looks like an "X" in the company logo is actually the Greek letter "chi" for Chandris), though it's been owned and operated for the past 19 years by the behemoth Royal Caribbean Cruises, based in Miami. Celebrity prides itself on its "modern luxury" style of cruising and organises cruise holidays on and around Europe, the Americas, Asia, the Pacific and beyond.
I catch my first sight of Constellation as I drive into Civitavecchia. Her white silhouette towers in the distance like a skyscraper, making the town around her look like Manhattan in miniature. The port, a jumble of cranes and sheds, looks more like the Bronx. We raise anchor in the late afternoon and as the sun sets I watch the Roman beach resorts of Fregene and Ostia slip over the horizon.
Time to take in my new floating home. Constellation is inhabited by people of every creed and colour, every shape and size - and that's just the crew, more than a thousand strong. My stateroom attendant, Joseph, from Mumbai, and his assistant Siddi, from Jakarta, entertain me with their origami-like transformation of towels and pyjamas into a menagerie of swans, dogs and mice. There's Zacharias, a waiter from Goa who expounds on the merits of his hometown's spicy chouriço; the young bartender from Sarajevo who's been forced to give up a promising career as a professional footballer in Russia on account of a knee injury; and Katy, the chatty sommelier from Mexico.
As for my fellow passengers, apart from the odd elbow in the ribs during stampedes at the buffet on the 10th deck, they are delightful, too. My tablemates that first evening are an affable bunch. Tony and Yvonne from Malta are interesting conversationalists. He leaps from topic to topic and his risqué jokes have the three German women at the table gurgling with pleasure; she talks about food and West End musicals.
With Lorraine and George from Perth I hit it off immediately, as I do with all the Australians on board. Usually the subject of conversation is sport - cricket, rugby and the late Richie Benaud - but in Lorraine and George's case the ice-breaker is the fact they have a daughter who lived in Turin for a few years, as did I for many. It transpires that George and I share the same surname, and he's called George Irving like my dad. I often fantasised about following in my father's footsteps - we will be visiting many of the places in which he saw fighting in World War II - but I wasn't expecting to meet his namesake. 
My Veranda stateroom is on the seventh deck. It measures 16 square metres, and although it isn't daggy (you can tell I've been mixing with Australians), it isn't luxurious either. It has a double bed, well-appointed bathroom, wardrobe, minibar, flat-screen television, small desk and compact settee. There's also a glass-topped coffee table on which sits an ice bucket holding a complimentary bottle of Celebrity Vintages sparkling wine - not quite Champagne but welcome nonetheless.
As its name suggests, the stateroom's finest amenity is its 3.5-square-metre verandah, a compact but pleasant place to enjoy the air at sea and take in the views when approaching land. The next best feature is the "Celebrity eXhale bedding featuring custom premium mattress, plush duvet and pillows, and 100% cotton linens". On that first night on board I don't beat my career-best of 12 hours' sleep - achieved on a yacht berthed at Menton, in the south of France near Nice - but I do sleep like a log. I'm thinking of buying a waterbed.
When I wake, day is dawning, gold tinged with pink, over Calabria to the east. Soon the volcanic Aeolian Islands begin popping out of the sea around us like mountaintops above clouds. As our Greek captain, Nikolas Christodoulakis, negotiates the Strait of Messina, I find my own bearings. A reconnoitre leaves me with the impression that many people
are party to secrets unrevealed to me: how to get around, what to do, where to go. These are the seasoned cruisers who, as further inquiry reveals, constitute the on-board majority. I feel like a gatecrasher at an exclusive party.
By midday, though, I've explored most of the public spaces: the pools, the spa, the foyer, the cafés, the bars, the three-tier Celebrity Theater and the casino, which seems to be crowded at all hours. Vertical journeys are made easy by swift lifts whose non-stop pinging provides the ship's soundtrack. Horizontal wanderings are via seemingly never-ending carpeted corridors, which would be tedious if they weren't lined with sometimes stylish artworks. I had intended to work out on the 11th-deck jogging track every morning as part of my recovery from a broken foot, but soon realise I'm getting all the exercise I need just getting around.
Having identified the main restaurant as the San Marco, a two-storey affair with a grand interior staircase, I stop off for lunch as Mount Etna, capped with snow, glides by to starboard.
Next evening we're threading our way through the Greek Cyclades, well on our way to the North Aegean. At some stage during the night we enter the Dardanelles, the strait that separates Europe from Asia and a place of serious history. The Trojan War took place nearby and the ruins of Troy itself can be visited from Çanakkale. Xerxes built a bridge of boats to allow his army to cross the strait from the Asian shore in 480BC, and Lord Byron swam across in the opposite direction in 1810. My cruise reading is Alan Moorehead's Gallipoli, recounting the more recent historical event we're here to remember.
On Anzac Day we rise at five o'clock and gather in the Celebrity Theater to watch live coverage of the dawn memorial service at Anzac Cove. At the end the audience stands up to sing the Australian national anthem. It's all very moving and emotional.
After the ceremony I find myself having breakfast at a table of Americans, none of whom know much about the Gallipoli campaign. "Sometimes we think we're at the centre of the universe," says Charlene, a physical therapist from California.
Çanakkale was demolished by bombing during the campaign and rebuilt. It's a pleasant enough city with a long promenade, a castle, and what seems to be an inordinate number of sports facilities. I join a bespoke coach excursion organised by the enterprising Hardy Schneider, originally from Germany and the manager of Cruise Express, a Sydney-based tour agency specialising in cruises.
We cross the strait to the Gallipoli peninsula by ferry, mooring at the small port of Eceabat. Now a national park, the peninsula is a sequence of scrub-lined ridges scored by ravines and dotted with war cemeteries and memorials. We join the nose-to-tail procession of buses on the one-way road through the Mediterranean scrub. An estimated 10,500 Australians and Kiwis are visiting, along with as many Turks. There are also 4,000 jandarma, or military police.
Schneider's tour includes a special service away from the crowds at the 4th Battalion Parade Ground Cemetery, followed by wreath-laying at the busier sites of Lone Pine, Quinn's Post and the 57th Infantry Regiment Memorial. At one point, this last site is invaded by a gang of bikers on Harley-Davidsons waving Turkish flags. They call themselves the Anatolian Tigers, and in other circumstances I imagine they might appear intimidating. The most mild-mannered of the bunch tells me they come to Gallipoli every year, peacefully and respectfully, to commemorate the Turkish dead.
Today the scent of wild rosemary and thyme fills the air. In 1915 the British intelligence officer Compton Mackenzie wrote, "There was no herb so aromatic but it reeked of carrion."
We leave Çanakkale that evening, and dawn finds us sliding through a belt of ghostly mist into the harbour of Istanbul. Palaces and mosques gradually take shape in the greyness. There's an air of excitement on board and many excursions are planned. My guide for a coach tour of Istanbul is Katgigegi Aykurt, a bubbly art historian. "My surname means flower," she says, "so you can call me Mrs Flower." Our driver, Mr Rufat, is declared "the best driver in Turkey". On our seats we find brown paper bags full of maps and brochures. One of these contains a section titled "Customs in Turkey". "When sitting with Turkish people," it reads, "it is considered rude to expose the sole of your foot so that it points in the direction of others." Good to know.
Mrs Flower squeezes a lot into half a day. Carrying an orange umbrella to stand out in the crowds, she takes us to the Blue Mosque and Hagia Sophia, en route, pointing out the Galata Tower, the Spice Market, the Orient Express terminus, the Topkapi Palace and the Grand Bazaar. Generally during shore excursions you have to enjoy sitting on buses, and given my injured foot, I do. But with Mrs Flower there's no sitting for long. As we climb back on board after the umpteenth stop, for no apparent reason she treats us to a rendering of "Drunken Sailor".
What shall we do with the drunken sailor? What shall we do with the drunken sailor?
Let me interrupt her to say that, overall, it's a very musical voyage. John O'Keefe, from Waterford, singing Irish rebel chants over dinner at the San Marco one evening, and Cornet, a pedicurist from Jamaica, giving her rendering of "Kingston Market" as she files my toenails at the Canyon Ranch Spa, are happy and abiding memories. But back to Mrs Flower.
What shall we do with the drunken sailor early in the morning?
By the time she moves on to "My Bonnie Lies over the Ocean" the bus is rocking.
The next day at sea is uneventful. You have breakfast, you sit on your veranda and watch the sea go by in the hope of seeing a dolphin or two but never do. You hot-tub, you read, you have lunch, you talk to strangers, you dine, you talk to familiar faces. Who needs events?
That night at dinner Yvonne complains that the pasta at the San Marco isn't as good as the pasta she's had in Italy. "How could it be?" I ask rhetorically. I later broach the subject with executive chef Andy Bouchard.
Easily the biggest man on board, Bouchard was born in Quebec of a Canadian father and a German mother, from whom he inherited his love of cooking. He has worked in Germany, the US and South America, and now lives in Las Vegas. When he's not travelling with Celebrity Cruises he loves nothing better than to go home to cook Mickey Mouse-shaped pancakes for his daughter and to hunt elk in Colorado.
How does he cater for so many people of different nationalities and tastes? How does he cope with the logistics of such a massive task? Bouchard explains, reasonably enough, that cruise passengers have to adapt their diningexpectations to the context. His job is to offer the widest possible range of culinary styles - something for everyone. When you're at sea for days on end, he says, cold storage is necessary, but he has suppliers in every port and loads fresh ingredients at all of them.
Constellation has so many restaurant options you could eat all day, and many passengers do. Other than the San Marco, I dine at the Tuscan Grille, Italian in style with lovely staff whose friendliness adds to the conviviality of the occasion; the Ocean Liner, more French, more formal, its atmosphere and décor conjuring bygone days of luxurious trans-Atlantic dining; and Luminae for suite-class passengers, intimate and refined. I enjoy them all, but, as a cruise neophyte, I have no terms of comparison by which to judge. I ask Charlene, an experienced cruiser, who says, "Food-wise, with Celebrity Cruises you're starting at the top."
On to Athens and another excursion. Our guide is Ana and our driver, whose name escapes me, is the "best in Greece". He has to be, because, according to Ana, "Here we have the worst traffic in the world." People in southern Europe seem to take a masochistic pleasure in the indiscipline of their drivers. Mrs Flower said the same thing about Istanbul. Some of the Australians on the bus are also shocked by the amount of graffiti on the walls. "Wait till you see Naples," I warn them.
On our whistle-stop tour Ana remarks on how many English words are derived from Greek. "Crisis" and "chaos" come to mind. Greece's economic problems were headline news in Europe before the cruise, and have been even more so since. I expect to see queues outside soup kitchens and beggars in the streets, but I don't. Brief shore excursions don't allow you to take the pulse of a nation. They merely provide cues for future, hopefully more in-depth exploration.
Next morning, after a night voyage of 140 nautical miles, we anchor off Santorini. The island is technically part of a caldera, the crater left by a cataclysmic eruption 3,600 years ago. From the ship we see sheer cliffs topped by white villages that sparkle in the sunshine. The harbour is too shallow to accommodate Constellation, so we cross to land by tender. I decide to take the cable car up to Fira, the capital, a place of souvenir shops and fast-food joints with spectacular views over the bay. It must have been pretty enough before mass tourism, but the deluge of visitors from the ship has it bursting at the seams. 
I return to the harbour down the winding 600-step walkway that also doubles as a track for the donkey trains many tourists choose as a folksy alternative to the cable car. One train is led by a man with a moustache and skin like a crocodile. Donning a straw sombrero and chewing a cheroot, he looks like an extra in a spaghetti Western. Bringing up the rear is a blue-eyed Siberian husky, a bizarre sight in the blazing Mediterranean
sun, though the dog seems more at ease than its perspiring owner. The sizzling noon air smells of oleander, eucalyptus, chamomile. And donkey shit.
Our last stop is Naples, a mad and maddening but utterly adorable city that makes Istanbul and Athens seem like models of order and decorum. The day before our arrival, the thrice-yearly "miracle of San Gennaro", during which an ampoule of the saint's blood liquefies, goes off according to plan in Naples Cathedral. What better omen for our visit?
I forgo excursions to Sorrento, Amalfi and Capri and spend the afternoon at Scaturchio, a historic downtown bar-pasticceria, with an old friend, Antonio Mattozzi. He's a local historian whose family has owned pizzerias in Naples since the 19th century. He's even written a book about them, Inventing the Pizzeria.
Back on board Constellation, the Australians agree with me about the madness of Neapolitan traffic and the prominence of its graffiti. But as we draw away from the dock, they also agree how beautiful it is.
The city recedes into the distance, and under the setting sun, the islands of Ischia and Procida appear to starboard, the rock of Capri to port. On the mainland, the Sorrentine peninsula straggles below Vesuvius. Then the moon rises over the great volcano and sends a green reflection spluttering across the water. "Quando spunta la luna lontano da Napoli non si può stare!" goes a weepy old ballad dedicated to Neapolitans emigrating to the Americas - "When the moon rises, it's unbearable to find oneself far away from Naples." For them this last view of the city was the beginning of their journey. For me, it's the end.