For centuries the Mediterranean has been one of the great harbors of human endeavor. Artifacts of great historical relevance can be found in nearly every seaside village regardless of size. Unlike many of the other cultural markers, those that trace the evolution of human interaction with the sea are not always highlighted in the tourist brochures. But mariners with a thirst for exploration stand to be rewarded by these off-the-beaten-path gems of maritime and religious history.
Adjacent to the riverine cores of two of the earliest civilizations, Mesopotamia and Egypt, the islands in the Mediterranean’s heart shine a particular light on the varied trajectories and interactions that nurtured this maritime mecca. Last spring, the 94-foot Trinity-Halter expedition yacht Whale Song departed Sardinia with one goal: to seek out the storied riches of culture, history, art and architecture in the Middle Sea—and of course, the culture, history, art and architecture of the sea itself were of particular interest. On board were myself as captain, my wife, Nancy, and three crew members. The yacht’s owner, Grant Wilson, and his family would later meet the boat in Venice, intending to explore Croatia before ending the season in Malta.
Sicily was the first stop and first opportunity for our enthusiastic crew to practice finding historical landmarks. Touring around the city we stumbled into Palazzo dei Normanni, and entered Cappella Palatina, built in 1132 by a Norman king. There the shining mosaics took our breath away. Among the religious iconography, I spotted some nautical scenes: Noah’s Ark, a boat netting fish and an early medieval vessel under sail, the helmsman steering with an oar on the right side, starboard. Here religion and the sea are inextricably linked. There must be more maritime history embedded on the ancient walls in other venerable harbors and we all hoped to find it.
While navigating eastward by Lipari and Vulcano Islands the weather laid out a show, water spouts like lean tornadoes hitting the sea in explosions of spray. To the north rose Stromboli, 3,000 feet high and trailing a plume of smoke. Still it’s a baby compared to the 10,000 feet of Etna glittering icy white above the other mountains as we powered in the Strait of Messina. A couple of odd-looking boats drifted nearby—the local swordfish hunters. In the middle of each boat rose a tower about twice the length of the hull; a narrow walkway for the harpooner stuck out from the bow nearly three boat lengths—the most unseaworthy and ludicrous fishing vessels.
Italy’s boot sticks into the Ionian Sea far enough to cause turbulent weather. But Whale Song’s owners, the Wilson family, waited in Venice, 600 nonstop miles ahead, so the show had to go on. At first we steered north in the lee of Italy in fairly smooth seas. Then across Golfo di Taranto, with the Italian mainland 60 miles away, the sea turned nasty, drumming against the pilothouse windows, spray streaming down the glass. For several hours the boat’s speed dropped from the usual 9 knots to just 6.5 knots. The calm when we finally reached Capo d’Otranto was dramatic, though—the sea shining like a silver plate.
In Venice our mooring between pile dolphins off “La Salute,” the church of Santa Maria della Salute, gave us an open view of Piazza San Marco, the basilica’s unmistakable bell tower shooting 323 feet up and the traffic in and out of Gran Canal passing under our bow. Gondola trips were okay, but in an escape from the tourist hordes we sauntered on the inner streets. Then all of a sudden two streets intersected at a church with Venetian galleys and galleons battling in high relief on its walls. Maritime trade and naval battles were the reality for this city between the 12th and 16th centuries. Venice, a small place built on tree trunks stuck in the mud, once controlled trade from the Adriatic to Constantinople. The winged lions of Venice still recall the city’s ancient power in ports in Greece, Turkey, even Syria and Lebanon. And, as we see when we cross the Adriatic to Croatia, those ports still show the influence of ancient Venice. In Rovinj, six of the Venetian lions vie for attention. However, in Pula, 20 miles south, it’s the Roman amphitheater with its towering walls that steals the show near a marina choked with boats.
About 250 miles separate Pula from the south end of the Croatian coast. The shoreline breaks into island-filled bays and long sounds between outer islands and the mainland, all dotted with ports, villages and towns, each with its own flavor.
It was August by the time we reached Croatia. The French and Italians had just started their summer holidays, and most of them, it seemed, had boarded boats and sailed to Croatia. The competition for marina space was fierce. The Mediterranean practice of dropping bow anchors and going stern first to an imaginary slot on the dock was a thrill to watch. In the mornings people pulled themselves out to their anchors, often finding more of them than expected. Still, coasting in Croatia is worth any hustle—every port town is a treasure of narrow ancient streets and architecture often over 1,000 years old.
Highlights on our Croatian route literally spanned centuries. In Rab we walked streets by Greek columns, Roman ruins and Byzantine chapels. In Zadar the 12th-century St. Anastasia’s Cathedral stands tall, the largest on the coast. In Šibenik, the oldest city on the coast, I admired the 15th-century faces of 71 donors carved into the outer walls of a cathedral. The Krka River continues by the waterfront then flows inland between chalk cliffs. The river ends at the waterfalls in Skradin, a centuries-old small town with a modern marina. In Trogir we climbed to the top of a 13th-century cathedral tower. In Split, the 4th-century Diocletian Palace dominates the shore. In Korčula, an island city, waves of peoples left traces of their presence, the oldest from 1000 BC. As recently as World War II, several nations were battling for the possession of the island. And the story is that in 1298 Marco Polo, the captain of a Venetian galley fighting the Genoese, was taken prisoner here and wrote of his travels while jailed in Genoa.
Dubrovnik exceeded all expectations. The city, known in antiquity as Ragusa, was one of the few to successfully defy Venice in its quest to dominate Adriatic trade. The city’s defensive walls, probably the most massive in the medieval world, must have helped. They even survived an earthquake, and later artillery during the Bosnian-Croatian-Serbian conflict in the 1990s. Having made the mile-and-a-half circuit of the battlements, we dove into the Maritime Museum in Fort St. John. I did make a point to visit as many of the museums as possible in the Adriatic ports—you never knew what you would find. In this rather unassuming Dubrovnik museum, which included the standard ship models and portraits, I was immediately drawn to the drama of marine disasters captured on canvas. These commissioned paintings, tagged as “ex-voto,” each addressed a saintly figure with thanks for a miraculous survival. While paintings were often the most economical way to express gratitude to the saints for surviving a close brush with death and disaster, these ex-votos come in many forms, including the engraved silver plates we found on a small island near Montenegro.
In Montenegro the over-3,000-foot mountains slide down onto the shores of the Bay of Kotor, a fairy-tale background for the tiny Gospa od Škrpjela, the Island of Our Lady of the Rocks. Dropping anchor near here led to visiting its chapel. Besides the baroque art, the walls displayed dozens of ex-voto silver plates embossed with images of ships, each with an icon of Our Lady of the Rock. The antiquity of the main town, Kotor, rivaled the treasures of Croatia. And better, here you can traipse along the old defense walls to St. Ivan’s Fortress, 850 feet above the water, to watch the bay below fill with yachts, tall ships and sometimes cruise ships.
We arrived in Malta to end our cruise. It was October, exactly the end of the navigation season recommended for the navy of the Knights of Saint John, a Catholic military order that ruled Malta for 300 years as a Christian stronghold. Until the French, followed by the English, forced them out in the 19th century, the Knights’ Maltese galleys were formidable vessels, with sail and auxiliary rowing power. But they were not so capable of coping with atrocious winter storms. The crew of Whale Song was more than happy to take our cues from this historic navy. We hauled out at Manoel Island Yacht Yard to do other work during the winter.
In Malta we made a final stop to visit another collection of ex-votos. The paintings in the Sanctuary of Our Lady of Graces in Żabbar offered a review of traditional ship designs and illustrated perils at sea from other men and weather. The panels have dates, descriptions of the events, names of the grateful survivors and their ships. These paintings brought to life the realities of navigating many centuries ago. If it weren’t for our engines in the waters off Sicily, we might have felt like promising, in exchange for an escape, an ex-voto painting to Our Lady of Tal Erba as Andrea Safarese did when a triple-headed waterspout hit his ship on September 30, 1826. They all came back to me: On June 18, 1779, Giuseppe Grima, on a ship loaded with tuna made his escape from pursuing pirates. On May 14,1833, Raffaele Spiteri fell down from the rigging and lived. In 1631 Christian slaves took over a Muslim fregata and escaped. Fra Aubin, a galley commander in the battle of Lepanto, submitted his ex-voto in 1571 after the Christian victory over Ottoman navy.
In hindsight it might have been a point of good seamanship for us to know of a saint to rely on as well. But even with countless saints to call upon, the Knights of Saint John still ended their season when the winter sea conditions threatened to outmatch their vessels—another point of good seamanship.
PHOTOS | Have a closer look at Whale Song's voyage pursuing the maritime past of the Mediterranean in the gallery below: