Porthole’s Five Faves
Unique Museums of the Western Med
Cruise through culture with these memorable – and often overlooked – collections.
While these are extraordinary museums, they may not be the first ones that come to mind in the culture-rich Western Mediterranean.
However, as an art museum fanatic and frequent cruiser, I can recommend giving these five favorites – gold-leaf-drenched gems – a visit.
Museu Nacional D’Art De Catalunya
This museum is housed in a grandiose building; royal, scrumptious and overwhelming, with rushing water fountains, high above the city on the slopes of Montjuïc. It was built for the 1929 International Exhibition and now houses the greatest display of Romanesque art in the world, with 12th-century frescoes saved from many churches being the highlight. It’s beautifully curated, recreating the vaulted ceilings and apses which house the brilliantly colored frescoes, some extraordinarily complete. The display brings back a pictorial world of death, redemption and eternal damnation, vastly different from the present day, with the help of an excellent audio guide. There is also Gothic art, modern art, and the work of great Spanish artistes, such as Velazquez and El Greco. The museum’s collection will transport you thought the early Middle Ages to the early 20th century, encased in splendid architecture. But the museum’s café or the rooftop terrace are a must for unparalleled, panoramic views of Barcelona including the Bullfighting Arena and La Sagrada Familia. Or visit the gardens while enjoying sangria, wandering musicians, and the sun-soaked city below.
Museo del Tesoro della Cattedrale di San Lorenzo
The Museum of the Treasury of San Lorenzo is a very small, atmospheric, underground museum inside the Cathedral of San Lorenzo. It was built in 1956 by an architect from Milan and houses some beautiful statues, dazzling jewelry, religious vestments, artifacts, and reliquaries reflecting religious devotion from centuries gone by. It’s beautifully curated with dramatic lighting, eerie shadows, ribbed ceilings, and small, intimate rooms which provide close-up viewing. Don’t miss the richly decorated ceremonial casket with scenes from the life of St. John the Baptist crafted in enamel and silver… and which holds his ashes. Or a fragment of the True Cross in a gem-encrusted, gold, Byzantine reliquary. Or the platter on which the severed head of St. John was served to Herod. The museum offers good explanations in English. The six-euro admission ticket includes the nearby Museo Diocesano.
Smaller ships docking along Costa Brava or Palamos, Spain, offer shore excursions to the small, inland town of Figueres to experience the absolutely outrageous Dali Theatre-Museum. It’s known to be “the world’s largest surrealist object” and is the second-most-visited museum in Spain. It was designed, supervised and lived-in for 10 years by Salvador Dali, providing a complete immersion into the mind of this eccentric artist. The museum delivers a wide range of work spanning his lifetime, including mobile art, holograms, sculpture, paintings, coin-operated gadgets, art installations and the bedazzling jewelry museum (also included in the ticket price). A visit here is part museum and part theme park. Pre-arranged tickets are a must to avoid long lines, so either arrive when it opens, book tickets online or go with your cruise ship shore excursion and jump the line. Be prepared for a wild, mind-bending experience!
Museo Nazionale di Capodimonte
For a lovely marriage of art and nature, just far enough from the beating, manic heart of Naples, is this 18th century Bourbon Palace museum displaying the blended Farnese and Borbone collections. A visit here entwines the history of Naples with the social and religious history of aristocratic families, displaying fine art, porcelain, tapestries, furniture, and ivory. With the emphasis on paintings, the main draw here is Caravaggio’s Flagellation of Christ, sensationally exhibited and lit, but Breughel, Titian, Lotto, El Greco, Joos van Cleve, Gentileschi and Orsi are also represented. Don’t let the inhospitable staff put you off and check which sections are closed (unpredictable!) before visiting. But do join the Italians for a picnic on the grounds after enjoying some sensational art.
Le Domus Romane di Balazzo Valentini
With so many fantastic museums to choose from in Rome, why not try something completely different? Located near the Roman Forum, this multimedia experience recreates a wealthy Roman villa built in 1585, using videos, graphics, projected computer images, special lighting and sound effects. The guided tour starts with a walk down unsettling Plexiglas stairs into the layers of history to expose centuries of everyday living, including a refuse depository. The museum reconstructs bare floors with mosaics, walls with decorations, pillars with frescoes and the see-through flooring beneath your feet comes to life with heating, water and sewer systems. There is a small museum of archaeological remains found in the villa and a film which reconstructs Rome from ancient to modern times. Truly unique, but reservations are highly recommended and can be booked in your language of choice on the internet. Don’t miss this multimedia museum “where antiquity meets innovation.”
— Mary H Thieme